Dig in

The unseasonably warm spring means this is the perfect time to experiment with a “kitchen” garden.  

The longer growing season gives organic vegetable lovers, gardening enthusiasts and novices a leg up this year.  

Typically there would be snow on the ground at this time, but because of the heat accumulation from many warm days, the soil temperature makes it possible to start working your backyard vegetable garden now.  

The weather conditions make it seem like it’s May and the budding plants hint that gardeners can begin planting cool weather plants — those that can withstand a possible light frost.

“Take advantage of the early spring and plant your cool weather vegetables now,” horticulturist and professional gardener Summer Badawi said. Cool weather crops include hearty greens like spinach and kale, plus bulbs and root plants like beets, radish, carrots and cabbage. 

“If you don’t plant the cool weather plants now and it gets too hot too fast, you’ll miss your opportunity to plant, but if it freezes again, you’re only out $10 worth of seeds,” Badawi said she raked compost into the soil in her Prospect Park backyard in Minneapolis. She was preparing to direct sow her cool weather crops — that is, put the seeds right into the ground.

Urban food-growers can make the most of their garden space by making a rough plan of where to place their plants and experimenting with planting in succession — replacing cool weather crops with more delicate crops as the weather warms.  

Badawi gave the example of planting her onions next to her lettuce. “Lettuce gets bitter when it is hot out, so I will eventually have to tear the lettuce out. I know I can plant the onions very close to the lettuce because as they get bigger later in the season, they can take over the space where the lettuce was.”

Maximizing a small space and understanding how to replace crops can be challenging, but it is a rewarding learning experience. Badawi said “to know it is to grow it,” and emphasized how there are no mistakes, just learning, when it comes to dealing with plants. 

If it is your first year with a kitchen garden, Badawi advised that a good way to start is to direct sow your cool weather plants, and buy seedlings of more delicate crops that thrive in warmer weather, such as tomatoes, melons, eggplant, zucchini, peppers, cucumbers, herbs, and flowering annuals.  

For gardeners starting seedlings inside, Badawi advises using a grow light and also putting seedlings outside for a while before replanting them, so they become accustomed to outdoor conditions.

For those with interested in starting their first a kitchen garden or wanting to try something new in an existing garden, Badawi recommended searching community classes and forums. 

Neighborhood organizations, libraries, nonprofits, and the University of Minnesota offer community classes and talks on gardening. And in most cities and towns one can find a wealth of gardening resources and free seminars. Another resource can be found online at gardeningmatters.org where one can connect to other gardeners and local gardening events.

Abbey Kleinert is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.