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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Garden revival

April 9, 2009

A community garden.

It's estimated that about 43 million households plan to grow gardens with vegetables or fruit this summer, an increase of 19 percent over 2008. Community gardens, like the one pictured above, are also popular.

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

U's Arboretum offers resources for vegetable gardeners

By Barb DeGroot

Looking for ways to save money in this tough economy? Search no farther than your own backyard.

From the White House to the corner bungalow, it seems like everyone these days is grabbing a hoe and planting a home vegetable garden to help stretch family food dollars and have some delicious fun outdoors.

According to the National Gardening Association, about 43 million U.S. households plan to grow vegetables or fruit this summer, a 19 percent increase over 2008. For a modest initial investment, a home vegetable garden can reap significant savings at the family dinner table.

If you lack a "green thumb," the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen can be a great resource for gardening ideas and assistance. As part of the University of Minnesota, the Arboretum serves as a community and national resource for horticultural and environmental information, research, and public education.

April is a great month for planning your vegetable and flower gardens, according to Peter Moe, horticulturalist and operations director at the Arboretum. Seed catalogs, seed packets, gardening books, and plant tags all provide information on planting dates, seed or plant spacing, and special cultural information. Vegetables are divided into cool-season crops and warm-season crops. Cool-season crops, including lettuce, radish, spinach, and peas, may be grown from seed planted outdoors in well-prepared soil from mid-April to early May.

You can also start some vegetable seeds indoors. Seeds for warm-season plants, such as peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, and tomatoes, usually require an 8- to 10-week indoor head start—with plenty of bright light—before being transplanted outdoors, says Moe. Once the danger of frost is gone and the soil is warm, these plants can be transplanted into the ground—usually the last week in May or the first week in June. (A convenient but somewhat more costly alternative is to purchase these plants as seedlings and simply transplant them into your garden when the weather warms.)

For optimal growth, it's wise to prepare your garden soils well. Remove perennial weeds and incorporate 4 to 6 inches of compost, peat moss, or well-rotted manure. This organic matter improves both clay and sandy soils and helps hold moisture, provides plant nutrients, and makes the soil easier to dig and plant.

The Germinator

Adjunct assistant professor of English Michael Tortorello recently began writing a recurring column for the New York Times about his foray into urban vegetable gardening.

His first step was to have the U's Extension test his soil for pH, organic matter, phosphorus, and potassium content. Ten days after sending in a sample he found that his dirt was "nitrogen-poor and only a little less sandy than Jones Beach."

You can follow his adventures, from the impossibility of outdoor avocados in Minnesota to the tough love of artichokes, at the  New York Times blog.

Applying mulch around your vegetable plants will help to reduce weeds and retain moisture. "Vegetables are mostly water and will improve in size, flavor, and quantity with uniform, regular watering," says Moe.

For more pointers, the Arboretum offers the following classes and events geared toward gardeners. To register, call 952-443-1422 or visit the Arboretum Web site.

• Plant Information Fair, Saturday, April 18, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Great Hall, Oswald Visitor Center. Free with gate admission. This educational fair will feature more than 20 plant societies and garden clubs.
• "Container Gardening," Saturday, May 2, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. $30 member; $40 non-member.
• "Integrated Pest Management: Controlling Plant Pests Safely," Saturday, May 9, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. $30 member; $40 non-member.
• "Gardening with Herbs," Saturday, June 6, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. $30 member; $40 non-member.
• Herb Symposium, Saturday, June 13, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Learn all about growing and using herbs. $55 member; $65 non-member.

Not only does the Arboretum maintain demonstration gardens teeming with ideas you can replicate on your own, it also offers gardening and horticulture classes for all ages; in fact, children can learn the joys of growing their own food and flowers through Arboretum summer camps and preschool programs. Another valuable resource is the Arboretum's Yard & Garden Help Desk, located in the Oswald Visitor Center and manned by master gardeners on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Gardeners can call the Yard & Garden information line with questions (952-443-1426).

A final invaluable resource for gardeners is the U of M Extension's gardening information Web site. It's loaded with the latest horticultural information.