Well it looks like Minnesotans have done a great job of staying home to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. At this time we have the lowest rate of infection per capita in the country, but that could change quickly if we don’t continue our efforts. So it looks like businesses will be closed and we will be practicing social distancing well into May. There is a bright spot however. Governor Walz has recently declared nurseries and garden centers essential businesses and many are preparing to open just in time for the growing season!
One thing that history teaches us is that when times get tough, Americans turn to gardening. During World War II, Americans were encouraged to plant Victory Gardens in order to relieve the stress on the food production system. Victory Gardens were vegetable, fruit and herb gardens planted by private citizens in their own yards. By 1943, over 20 million Victory Gardens were planted in the U.S, producing nearly one third of the vegetables consumed in the country that year.
Perhaps it is time for us to resurrect the Victory Garden. This time the enemy is this nasty Corona virus which has made even a simple trip to the grocery store a worrisome thing. With the pandemic predicted to peak this summer, now is the time (which many of us have plenty of) to start planning to grow some of our own produce this year. Original Victory Gardens were family garden plots yielding a variety of fruits and vegetables, but a Victory Garden today does not have to be a huge time-consuming undertaking. It can be as simple as planting a few tomato plants in a small space in your yard, in a raised bed or even in containers.
Watching the snow fall on Easter Sunday makes one think that the gardening season is far off, but even though we cannot plant most things for another month, this is the time to start planning. So what are some things we can do now?
Decide where you want to grow your vegetables. Do you have a small sunny space in your yard that you could till up? Vegetables like lots of sun. If you have a space, you may want to get the soil tested in that spot. The U of M soil testing lab is still open and working, but they can only accept your soil samples by mail under the current situation and results may take a little longer to receive. All the information on how to get a soil test can be found at soiltest.cfans.umn.edu.
If you do not want to plant directly into your yard or garden perhaps a raised bed would work or planting in containers. In a raised bed you may want to try square foot gardening – where you mark off your garden bed with a grid of one-foot squares and grow one plant per square foot. Information on how to do that can be found at squarefootgardening.org. If you want to try containers, use a large pot for each vegetable plant, allowing plenty of room for growth. Whichever method you choose remember to give your plants plenty of room, don’t overcrowd them and you will have a better yield.
Decide what you want to grow. Plant what you and your family like to eat. It seems like everyone wants to grow tomatoes, but if you don’t like tomatoes there is no point in growing them. Every year Master Gardeners do seed trials of new varieties of vegetables, herbs and perennials. They look for disease and insect tolerance, and in vegetables, texture and flavor. In 2019 the winning early tomato was the “4th of July,” the winning snap pea, “Sugar Ann” and the winning golden beet was the “3-root Grex.” If you would like a list of all the Master Gardener seed trial results for the last 30+ years go to extension.umn.edu/news/seed-trial-results.
Decide how you are going to plant your garden. You could start some seeds indoors. If you want to start tomato and pepper plants indoors you should start them now, so they will be big enough to plant outdoors by the end of May. Green beans, cucumber and squash seeds can be started indoors in late April. If you don’t want to start seeds indoors, you can plant ‘cold’ weather crop seeds such onions, peas, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and leaf lettuce, outdoors as soon as the ground is thawed and tillable. If you don’t want to mess with seeds you can buy seedlings from the garden centers as soon as they are up and running and have them on hand.
Decide when to plant your garden. Regardless of whether you start plants yourself or buy the seedlings from a nursery, it is important that they are planted outside at the appropriate time. The above mentioned cold weather crops can be planted as soon as they are available, but hold off on those warm weather lovers, especially tomatoes, peppers and herbs. The last frost in Minnesota is generally around Mother’s Day but you don’t want to plant warm weather plants until the ground is sufficiently warm, 60° or warmer. Planting tomatoes too early does not mean you will have tomatoes earlier, as the cold soil will stunt the plant growth, possibly even kill it. So in the absence of a soil thermometer, I would hold off planting tomatoes and peppers until after Memorial Day.
I usually buy my vegetable seedlings from the garden center, but this year with the Stay at Home order running until mid-May, I find myself with some extra time so I think I will try starting some seeds at home. I hope you will join me in planting a Victory Garden this year – of any size.