Gardening from scratch

Standing in the backyard of his Kingfield home, 26-year-old Alex Bauman is describing his plans for a summer vegetable garden. He discusses how, in raised beds, he will plant everything from kale and tomatoes to broccoli and cauliflower. It’s an ambitious plan, not least because Bauman’s backyard is currently paved. Entirely paved, actually.

“At first it seemed like a detriment, a hurdle to leap,” he said. “But really it’s a blank slate. Tabula rasa, as they say.” In his basement Bauman has been diligently growing seedlings, and he’s used the free program Google SketchUp to carefully outline his landscaping plans on his computer. Now the only thing standing between him (and this reporter, who owns the other half of Bauman’s duplex) and a fresh, homegrown summer salad is a giant concrete slab.


Green thumb advice

Starting a home garden — though not necessarily from pavement, Bauman-style — is on the upswing according to the results of a new survey by the National Gardening Association, which found that 7 million more households plan to grow their own fruits, vegetables, herbs, or berries in 2009 than in 2008 — a 19 percent jump.

Mary Meyer, interim director of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and a professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota, credits that increase to several different factors. “We are seeing a lot of first-time gardeners asking about how difficult or easy it is to start vegetable plants because they are interested in not only saving money but growing food that they know where it’s been from start to finish,” Meyer explained. “There’s also an understanding about the health benefits of eating more vegetables, so it’s really two or three things coming together.”

The zeal for gardening often leads novices to bite off more than they can chew, according to Meyer, who recommends being realistic about the labor that goes into a vegetable garden. “People have a lot of ambition and start with huge plots, but vegetable gardening can be quite a bit of work,” said Meyer. “I tell people starting small is very good, to start with containers or even getting a tomato plant that’s already potted.”

Those committed to using beds should consider having their soil tested, she says, recommending the U’s Soil Testing Laboratory’s $15 testing option. “A soil test tells you what the nutrient level and PH level is in your soil and how much organic matter you have,” Meyer said. “If you don’t have a test, you’re going in blind and don’t know what to add. Most of our soils in Minneapolis have some nutrients, but to grow big annual crops like tomatoes or peppers you’ll want to know what your soil is missing.”

Down the road, Meyer recommends novice gardeners consider generating their own fertilizer in a compost bin, which she considers “absolutely the best” when it comes to creating organic matter for feeding the soil. Meyer also said it’s a great way to meet your neighbors: “Talk to your adjacent neighbors and have a compost bin together!”


Crops from concrete

While Bauman’s start-from-scratch plan might seem like a lot for a newbie gardener to tackle in one summer, he actually has a season of vegetable harvesting under his belt. Last year Bauman had a plot at the Soo Line Garden in Whittier where he grew carrots, eggplant, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, cauliflower, a variety of herbs and several flowers. “I was just experimenting then,” Bauman says. “I threw in a lot of stuff and saw what worked.”

That experience has helped Bauman identify his two main concerns in creating his Kingfield garden: sunlight and soil. Because he’ll be using raised beds, Bauman won’t be relying on the yard’s soil, but that means purchasing enough of the nutrient-rich dirt to accommodate all his crops — a potentially taxing proposition for his garden’s budget of $1,000 to $1,500. The location of the garden could also be problematic when it comes to sunlight as well. “I’m not sure this spot gets enough sun for what I want to grow,” Bauman says. “If the plants don’t live through the summer, I guess I’ll know.”

As of early May Bauman is focusing on thinning out his seedlings (“My broccoli was pitiful last year, spindly and thin, so I hope starting it inside makes a difference”), setting up his compost bin to generate fertilizer and looking for workers with concrete saws to tackle the expanse of concrete.

The Southwest Journal will check in periodically with Bauman throughout the summer to chart his progress (hopefully stealing some tomatoes at the same time) and to help inspire first-time gardeners. In the meantime Meyer offered this advice: “Don’t be thwarted the first year if things don’t go really well. You will learn a lot and get to be better and better at gardening and nurturing and preparing food,” Meyer said. “It leads to new ways to cook and eat fresh foods. Don’t be discouraged!”


University of Minnesota’s Soil Testing Laboratory

Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s Yard and Garden Information Line