by Matthew Olson

My earliest memory of gardening is from seventh grade, when I found some cucumber seeds in a kitchen drawer at our house. I planted a couple of the seeds in a container on our deck, and eagerly watched them grow throughout the summer. By the end of the summer, there were no cucumbers on the vine, at least that’s what I thought. However, while I was cleaning up the plant in fall, I discovered a beautiful ripe cucumber hiding under the mounds of foliage. The sight of that one cucumber sparked my interest in gardening, and over the next few years I began growing numerous vegetables on our deck and eventually in raised beds. 

Growing veggies isn’t particularly challenging, but sometimes it’s difficult to know where to start. Today we’ll look at some factors to consider when creating your own veggie garden.

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Before you begin preparing your beds or containers for planting, you should determine what you want to grow, and how much to grow. One of the great things about Veggie gardening is that it creates much enthusiasm for new gardeners as they realize all the different foods they can grow. It’s important to remember that veggie gardens do require care throughout the growing season, so starting small is usually better. If you try growing too much in your first season, you may become overwhelmed with trying to keep up. 

To decide what you want to grow, consider the veggies you enjoy eating. Growing veggies you don’t like can lead to wasted space in the garden that could be used for food you enjoy. 

Most vegetables fall into one of two groups, cool season and warm season. Cool season veggies require cooler soil and air temperatures to thrive. A few examples of cool season veggies are Lettuce, Broccoli and Spinach. Planting earlier will allow these plants to produce for a longer period of time. The exact time to plant cool season veggies varies each year, based on weather, but mid-April through early May is generally a good time in the midwest. Once the hotter temperatures of summer arrive, these plants will flower and set seed, which is called bolting. When the plants begin to bolt, the leaves become bitter, and the plants are no longer good for growing. There are some varieties of cool season veggies that are resistant to bolting, which can lengthen the amount of time you have to harvest the plants.

Cool season veggies in Alaska

Warm season veggies require warm soil and air temperatures to grow and thrive. To combat our shorter growing season, many of these veggies are grown indoors from seed and moved into the garden as transplants. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are a few of the more common warm season veggies. These shouldn’t be planted outside until the threat of frost is over in Spring. It’s also essential that the soil temperature is at least 60º, otherwise the plants will be stunted and more prone to pest issues. In the Twin cities area, mid-late May is usually a good time to plant warm season veggies outside. 

The site where you grow your veggies is important as well. Most veggies require full sun (6+ hours) to grow to their full potential. There are a few exceptions. Many cool season veggies, such as lettuce and kale can thrive in part shade. 

Vegetables can be grown in a wide variety of settings, from containers to raised beds. If you don’t have the space for growing them in the ground, containers are a great alternative. In recent years breeders have developed vegetable varieties that are smaller and more suited for small spaces and containers, while still providing a plentiful harvest. You can grow everything from lettuce and carrots, to cucumbers and potatoes in containers. The type of vegetables you grow will determine the size of your containers. Larger plants will require bigger containers. For soil, it’s best to use potting soil from a local nursery. Growing in containers will require more frequent watering, sometimes every day, during the heat of summer. 

If your garden is in the ground, or a raised bed, you can add compost each year to build a healthy soil. The ideal soil has a loamy texture, which allows a good balance of drainage, nutrients and oxygen flow in the soil. The texture of a soil is based on the level of sand, clay and silt in the soil. Soil texture is one of the most important factors in the success of your garden. Soil that is too sandy will not hold enough nutrients or water, and soil that has too much clay will hold excess water, which will limit oxygen levels in the soil, resulting in weak plants, root rot or pest issues. If you’re not sure about the overall health of your soil, a soil test is a great way to determine if your soil needs improvement. Your local extension office can provide you details on how to take a soil sample and send it in for testing. 

Irrigation is possibly the most important factor in growing healthy veggie plants. As I briefly mentioned, too much or too little water can have a negative impact on the plants. If you’re growing veggies in containers, you should water them when the top two inches of soil feels dry. Putting your finger in the soil is the easiest way to test if you should water. In general, container plants will need to be watered more frequently than plants in the ground. Plants in the ground will also require watering when the top couple inches of soil are dry. After about a month, plants that are in the ground should be established enough to not need supplemental water unless there is a prolonged dry spell. 

Every garden has weeds, and weeding the garden can be very tedious, but it is necessary to maintain a healthy garden. A little weeding each week will pay off. In containers, weeds are usually sparse and small, especially if the soil is shaded by the plants. A veggie garden in the ground is usually more prone to weeds. However, if you make weeding a regular habit, you can stay ahead of them. For me, weeding is a great way to make the garden look aesthetically pleasing. 

Disease and insect pests can be challenging for every gardener. The best way to prevent these problems is to have healthy plants. A few ways to reduce disease and insect pests are to give plants plenty of room to allow for air circulation. Crop rotation is a method used by both farmers and gardeners to conserve fertility in the soil and reduce the buildup of disease. Crop rotation involves moving each crop to a different area each season. Crop rotation is usually done based on the type of plant being grown in a particular spot. For example, tomatoes and peppers are in the same family of plants, which means they’re often affected by the same disease and pest problems. Growing vegetables that are in a different family each year in one spot can minimize those problems. Crops are normally rotated in 3–4 year cycles. If you don’t have enough space to rotate crops, that’s okay. You’ll just need to keep a closer eye on your plants to detect any problems from harmful pests. 

These are just a few things to get you started on creating a bountiful veggie garden. One of the best parts of growing your own food is that you’re continuously learning something new. There are many great online resources and books that will dive into the specifics of the topics I’ve covered, and I encourage you to check them out. Spring has arrived, and now is the perfect time to start your next garden adventure!