By Marty Ross
Midwestern gardeners are lucky: Many vegetables are easy to grow here. Our soils are naturally moisture-retentive and full of minerals, and our climate — while challenging — is great for raising all kinds of crops in your backyard. Even if you’ve never grown tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, or other crops before, proceed with confidence: You have lots of ways to make sure you succeed.
Find a sunny spot. Most vegetables need 6 to 8 hours of sunlight a day to flourish and produce abundant crops. If you don’t have enough sun in your own backyard, check out the possibilities at a local community garden.
Start with a manageable size. It’s better to have a plot a little too small than one too big. Your garden should be a pleasure, not a burden. Try a 3x5-ft or 4x6-ft bed. Or just start with a few vegetables in pots. Lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers all thrive in containers, although tall plants need support.
Good soil is essential. Amend your soil with compost to improve its tilth and add nutrients and micronutrients. If you start in pots, fill them with fresh potting soil.
Choose vegetables you love. There’s no point in growing broccoli or beans if you don’t like them.
Get your timing down. Tomatoes do not thrive if you plant them too early. Bean seeds do not germinate unless the soil is warm. Check with your local extension office for a good planting calendar for your area. In the Midwest, Mother’s Day generally is a good time to set out tomato plants — but if late frosts are typical where you live, wait until the danger of frost is past.
Include flowers and herbs. Butterflies, bees, and other pollinators love them.
Seed racks make inspiring displays, but choose wisely. Some crops are much easier to grow from transplants (ready to set out in the garden) than seeds.
- Radishes are a surefire crop. Sow the seeds outdoors in early spring for a crop you can harvest in just a few weeks. Tiny radishes picked as you thin a row are delicious — tops and all — in spring salads.
- Start lettuce and greens with transplants, which are available in six-packs. Sow seeds at about the same time as radish seeds. You can harvest a few tender leaves right at planting time, and then you pick fresh salads and greens for weeks.
- Pepper seeds are challenging. They need 1 to 3 weeks to germinate, and must have warm soil before seed breaks dormancy. Instead of growing peppers from seed and pampering them indoors until it’s time to plant, you can buy plants as soon as the weather warms up.
- Tomato seeds germinate quickly, but the seeds come 20 or more to a packet, which adds up to a lot of the same kind of tomato. It’s more fun (and easier) to buy two or three different kinds of tomato plants. You learn a lot more that way, and still have plenty of garden-fresh tomatoes to eat. Try a hybrid, an heirloom variety, and a cherry tomato.
- Beans, beets, cucumbers, okra, peas, and squash are easy to grow from seed sown directly in the garden. Check the planting dates on the seed packets, and compare them with the suggestions from your local extension office.
- Buy transplants for a crop of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. Set the plants out while the weather is still cool; they tolerate light frosts.
Water well after planting, and continue to water once a week. A layer of mulch limits evaporation and helps keep weeds under control. Fertilize once a month with organic fertilizer. (Espoma Garden Tone is a good choice). Check on your vegetable garden every day — you learn as you grow, and you seldom return empty-handed.