10 steps to successful vegetable gardeningSt. Louis County Extension Educator Bob Olen shares his secrets for success
By: Jana Peterson, Budgeteer News, Superior Telegram
The friendly voice of St. Louis County Extension Educator Bob Olen is a familiar one to gardeners across the Northland. If they don’t tune into him on KDAL-AM radio every Wednesday, they’ve probably seen him on PBS Channel 8.
Or they’ve attended one of his many conferences on growing things, from flowers to tomatoes to vegetable gardens. Or maybe they’ve eaten some of the fabulous fingerling potatoes he grows on his own hobby farm.
Olen is an expert on growing things in this region, but he doesn’t talk down to people who are just beginning to garden. In fact, like another famous Bob, he would likely tell the tentative gardener to “Come on down.”
Olen shared his “10 Tips to Successful Vegetable Gardening” ideas with the Budgeteer after last month’s highly attended conference on growing your own fruits and vegetables, so folks who didn’t attend the conference can still get the best possible start to growing their own vegetables.
1. Planning to plant
Do it on paper first, Olen advised. Figure out what you want to plant first. Find varieties that are proven to grow well in our region.
Consider the specific needs of those vegetable varieties, then look at your garden plot. Determine which areas get more sun, and which offer greater shelter. Make a plan.
“It’s easier to move things around on paper,” Olen said.
He stressed that choosing proven varieties is key.
“We have ‘recommended variety’ lists for northern Minnesota available for vegetables ($4) and fruit ($3),” Olen said. “Those are based on actual field trials right here in St. Louis County. Believe me, they’re worth every penny. We spend a lot of time and resources every year to put those together.”
2. Site selection and preparation
If you have not established a garden site yet, there are several things to consider: sunlight, drainage, wind protection, animals.
“For warm-season crops, you want at least six hours of sunlight,” Olen said. “You might consider trimming or cutting down trees that block the sun. You also want good drainage; otherwise you can create raised beds.”
Now for some good, old-fashioned weeding.
“Remove all the grasses and other perennial weeds as soon as the snow melts,” Olen said. “Anything that’s green right now is perennial, so get the roots, rhizomes, stems, everything. Then you can leave it covered with heavy black plastic or a heavy layer of newspaper until you’re ready to plant.”
3. Soil selection and amendments
At $15, a soil test through the University of Minnesota is a bargain. It’s also an important investment for any gardener who hasn’t had one before.
(Note: You can visit the University of Minnesota Web site at http://soiltest
.cfans.umn.edu for instructions on taking a soil sample and to print out the form you will need to send in your soil sample. If you are not able to access the Soil Testing Laboratory Web site, the Extension Office in Duluth, 733-2870, can provide the needed form.)
It’s all about optimizing the gardening experience. After all, why spend money on seeds and plants, not to mention all the hours caring for them, without giving them the best possible environment in which to grow? Get the soil tested. Find out what it needs and doesn’t need. If your pH is off, you will get a recommendation for adding either lime (to raise the alkalinity) or sulphur (to lower the pH). Add nutrients to the soil using compost or well-rotted manure or some other fertilizer — right now is a good time to do that, Olen said, noting that fall or early spring are the best times.
4. Vegetable variety selection
Again, Olen stresses choosing the right variety of vegetable. Not every tomato grows well in northern Minnesota, but there are certainly tomatoes that thrive here.
“Variety selection is especially important for warm-season crops,” Olen said, noting that tomatoes, bell peppers and strawberries are all warm-season crops that will grow here. “[Variety] can make the difference between ripe crops and no crops. As for cold season crops (salad greens, squash and other frost-tolerant plants), you want to select the higher-performing crops.”
Did someone mention strawberries, even though they’re not a vegetable?
“We can grow beautiful strawberries in this area, but it has to be the right variety,” Olen said. “Take the Mesabi strawberry: I just go nuts for them. Store-bought strawberries often look good, but they can taste like they’re made out of cardboard. The Mesabi are just lush throughout.” (Note: The Mesabi strawberries are a mid-season variety introduced by the University of Minnesota. The plants have excellent winter hardiness and very good flavor.)
Again, the University of Minnesota Extension, St. Louis County office in the Government Services Center has its 2010 recommended vegetable varieties list available for $4 (fruits for $3).
Don’t get over-excited by the fabulous March weather. It isn’t normal, and odds are good we’ll see more snow before summer arrives. According to Olen, June 10 is typically the last frost-free day, so make your plans cautiously.
“Cool-season crops that are frost-tolerant can go out in May,” Olen said. “But you’ll want to wait on your warm-season crops.
“For tomatoes and peppers, you’re advised to use transplants (rather than seeding directly in the ground) when the frost danger is passed.”
Plants need 13 nutrients to grow; the big three are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Garden soil will often benefit from the addition of fertilizer containing these three. However, someone who is growing vegetables in containers will also need to pay attention to the other trace elements. When buying fertilizer, container gardeners should buy complete fertilizers, Olen said.
7. Water management
“You never want to let plants wilt, nor do you want to over-water them,” the extension educator said. “As a general rule, you want about an inch of water per week from rain or watering.”
A person can keep track of how much water is getting into the garden by simply setting out a No. 10 tomato can or a rain gauge and measuring it after rainfall or during a watering session.
8. Weed control
Like it or not, weeding is necessary.
But there is also herbicide (a substance used to kill unwanted plants while leaving the desired plants unharmed).
While Olen said people are wise to use herbicides with caution (and follow the directions); he noted that Roundup is one herbicide that is very safe when properly used, because it breaks down readily.
9. Pest control
Garden pests range in size from tiny insects to the plentiful deer that roam the Northland.
For the deer, fencing is the best option or, Olen said, some kind of sprinkler system that is motion-activated.
Handle chemical deer repellents with caution, he said, because they can contaminate the very food you are trying to protect with bacteria. As for smaller mammals, such as rabbits and chipmunks, choose fencing with holes too small to allow easy access.
Bugs aren’t a big problem in the Northland (usually), but they do make their presence felt on occasion.
“Look for early evidence — chewing or actual evidence (bugs, bug eggs),” he said. “Then ID the insect and consider the least toxic method of controlling it.”
One possible idea that involves no chemicals is covering the plants with spun polyester blankets, which are available online.
“You want to harvest when the crop is ripe; don’t delay,” Olen said.
He mentioned string beans as an example.
If string beans are harvested right when they are beginning to mature, the plant will set more blossoms and increase the harvest.
However, if you wait until they are over-mature to pick them, the flowering process stops.
The same with broccoli: Cut off the broccoli head when the buds are tight and the plant will grow more buds on lateral shoots further down.
Wait too long and you’ll get pretty yellow broccoli flowers and nothing else.
“It’s also a great idea to harvest some of your vine-ripened tomatoes (especially the ones nearest the top) early, because it seems to hasten the ripening process for the rest of them,” he said.
Now, for the reward.
How about a nice mixed salad?