Saturday, July 13, 2013

Useful Tips for Northern Gardeners

A friend of mine gave me a copy of a booklet called How to Grow a Better Garden, written in 1990 by a Wisconsin man named Wes Thompson.  He was a local master gardener that grew vegetables and sold them out of the back of his truck around town for many years.  His 70 page booklet is full of interesting tips and tricks and information about crops that grow well, or not, in the northern states.  I live in Minnesota near the Wisconsin border and while we can grow some of the best vegetables gardens around (because our cool climate causes slow growth and allows time for natural sugars to develop), gardening is not always easy this far up in the states.

Thompson's book gets really specific about everything from soil ph to fertilization to insect control, but I'll share just some of the fun tips for getting started, or possibly improving what you have.

When choosing your garden spot, keep away from large trees with roots that may steal from your garden.  Only set up a garden in a place with sensible access to water (a hose for large gardens or at least a rain barrel within walking distance for small ones).

New gardens have an advantage because insects, animals and weeds may take a few years to discover it.  Also, the soil is fresh and your veggies haven't leeched out the good stuff yet.  My garden is half topsoil and half compost.  First we dug a ten inch pit the size of the garden, then we filled it with the soil compost mix.  We had to do this because our soil is solid clay and rock.

We have a ton of clay around where I live.  Plants that grow well in soil that includes clay are cabbage, peas, beets, cucumbers, and raspberries.  Mix clay-rich soil, free of stones, with compost and these will do well.

Plants that grow well in heavy soil with a lot of compost are peonies, cauliflower, asparagus, onions and broccoli.  Pretty much everything else likes soil that includes some compost and maybe a little sand, too, to keep it loose and promote drainage.

To plant teeny tiny seeds, mix them with dry coffee grounds to help scatter them evenly.  Extra seeds will keep in the freezer for several years if they are dry.

When planting, we often think of a little hill with our seeds or plants perched on top.  Wes plants everything with the soil next to the stem actually lower than the soil around it, to catch water.  I have never heard of this, but it makes sense.

Beets and carrots don't like prolonged cold watering.  15 minute watering is the max or the roots will grow to be short, round balls like radishes.  This happened to me last year when I watered every four days with a sprinkler for a half hour or more instead of more often for a shorter time.

Once carrots and parsnips are up about an inch, refrain from watering for about 10 days and the roots will grow long and straight, producing large and perfect veggies.  Keep stones, pieces of bark, or lumps of soil away from carrot and parsnip beds.  The soil should be fine and loose.

If you get a rains that packs soil in a crust around plants, loosen it by stabbing an 8 inch screwdriver vertically into the soil all around the plant (without getting too rough with the roots).

Do not water mid-day or you will burn your plants.

Don't cover soil around plants with mulch or black plastic.  This will keep the soil cool and inhibit growth.  Instead, use clear plastic or nothing.

Plant bean seeds with the eye facing down, and the rows running east to west.

Lettuce, peas, beets and beans like to be planted early.  You can replant again in August for a fall crop.

Rutabagas like to be planted late so they do most of their maturing in September.  They like extra sandy soil.

Melons also like sandy soil  and lots of heat.  So do eggplants and peppers.  I have found cucumbers to be very fussy about cold nights.  The soil must be good and warm, day and night, for them to thrive.

I have had trouble with the flowers on my vining cucumbers not getting pollinated, so the tiny fruits turn yellow and die.  I am now growing them up tomato cages instead of along the ground, hoping the bees will see the flowers better.

Garlic is said to be difficult to grow in Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Wes buys his at the store.

Short and stocky tomato plants grow better than tall ones.  Prune tomatoes after August 15th, removing everything that is growing beyond the last flower on each branch.  This will put energy into the existing fruit, otherwise you'll have tons of green tomatoes (like I did last year).

To keep cauliflower heads from turning brown, cover the developing heads with leaves of cabbage or tie the cauliflower leaves at the top.

Corn picked in late afternoon is best.  I pick other veggies in the morning when they are crisp before the sun sucks up their moisture.

Don't let weeds go to seed.  "One year of seeds equal seven years of weeds."

To kill slugs, bury tuna fish cans level with the ground and fill 2/3 with beer.  Refill beer as needed.  Or place a 6 inch by 2 foot plank on the soil, flip up to expose the slugs all over the underside daily and slice the slugs in half (ick).

To keep cutworms from severing the stems of your plants, place a matchstick or small twig at the base of the stem.

Clean your garden out in the fall.  Replenish your garden with compost yearly.  Chicken yard manure should be turned into the soil in the fall so it has the winter to mellow.  Plant everything in a new spot every year or two since certain plants enrich and deplete different nutrients from the soil.

I could go on, but that's enough I suppose.  Any specific questions, let me know, and I'll look it up for you!  Happy gardening!


  1. Hi Hannah, just popped over to let you know that your link to Food on Friday: Mexican Food was featured in my Need Some Inspiration? Series today. Hope you are having a good week.

  2. He was a local master gardener that grew vegetables and sold them out of the back of his truck around town for many years.Guildford gardener His 70 page booklet is full of interesting tips and tricks and information about crops that grow well, or not, in the northern states.


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