After a long, wet spring, the planting season is finally underway. The last week of May and first week of June are a great time to plant a summer vegetable garden – the days are getting long, risk of frost has passed, and the soil has finally warmed up. Although we generally don’t have huge yards in our neighborhood, even the smallest garden can produce a good amount of tasty, healthy produce. It can be fun to get kids involved in growing, tending, and harvesting vegetables. And it doesn’t get any more local than your own yard! Whether you’re a seasoned vegetable gardener or new to the world of growing your own produce, here are some tips for making the most out of our short growing season.
Some cool-season veggies (like lettuce, kale, and peas) are happy with colder soil temperatures, but most vegetables will do better when planted into soil above 60 degrees. You can stick a kitchen thermometer in the ground to measure the temperature, or check out online soil temperature maps. As of the writing of this column, the soil temperature in Minneapolis was above 60 degrees on average, so we should be ready to plant.
If you’re creating a vegetable garden from scratch, there are several things to consider to make sure you give your plants the best conditions. First, place your garden bed in the sunniest spot in your yard. Most vegetables will do the best when they have at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day. If you don’t have a spot with that much light, don’t worry – there are plenty of crops that will thrive in partial shade. If you have 4-6 hours of sunlight, try beans, beets, broccoli, radishes, or carrots. Leafy greens and many herbs will do well with as little as 2-3 hours of direct sunlight per day.
Another important consideration is how you will water the garden. Although we’ve had plenty of rain so far this year, you will almost certainly need to water with a hose at some point. So, make sure your hose spigot isn’t too far from your vegetable garden! This seems like a minor detail, but you will be glad you thought about it during our hot August days.
Now it’s time to choose the vegetables to plant. There are so many different varieties. The best choices will depend on your goals. Heirloom varieties are beautiful and often have the best flavor, but they can be susceptible to diseases. Hybrid varieties are generally bred to be resistant to common plant diseases, but that may come with less exciting colors or flavors. You can check out online seed catalogs to read about the characteristics of different vegetable varieties before you head to the garden center to choose plants and seeds. Personally, I like to plant a combination of heirloom and hybrid vegetables. For example, I usually get some interesting tomatoes like Cherokee Purple or Green Zebra, but also a few with excellent disease resistance like Early Girl or Juliet. This way, even if I lose some heirloom plants to wilt or blight, I usually have plenty of hybrid plants that are still doing well.
Another great source for recommended plant varieties is the Master Gardener Seed Trials. Since 1982, Master Gardener volunteers all over Minnesota have tested different varieties of vegetables, flowers, and herbs to determine which grow the best in our climate. Recommendations are based on flavor, disease and insect tolerance, productivity, and germination rate. The top performers in each trial are designated as “Minnesota Winners,” and you can find a list on the University of Minnesota Extension website. Some recent Minnesota Winners include “Sweet Cayenne” peppers, “Purple King” and “Gold Rush” beans, and “4th of July” and “Valencia” tomatoes.
Finally, one tip for maximizing your yield in a small space is succession planting. This is a method of garden planning where you stagger plantings to ensure a continuous supply of produce, and plant new crops once others have passed their prime. This way, your whole garden space is continuously producing during the growing season, with no wasted space. For example, you could grow lettuce early in the spring, then after it’s harvested, plant peppers in the same spot. Once you harvest the peppers in the late summer, you will likely be able to fit in a fall planting of lettuce or kale before the weather gets too cold. This method takes more planning, but it can significantly increase your garden yields!
For more information, check out the University of Minnesota Extension Yard and Garden website. Extension resources are written by experts and contain the latest and most reliable research-based information. Happy gardening!
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