Tessa Moon Leiseth is delighted telling of her family’s gardening joys! Vegetable growing is a family affair at the Leiseth home in Moorhead. When Tessa and her husband, Jon, decided several years ago to transform part of their backyard into a veggie patch, they took their two kids, Isaac and Sophia, along for the ride. They planned, planted, and all enjoyed amazing produce.
The Leiseths are not alone in their efforts to get closer to the source of their own food. For Tessa, it was Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” that convinced her. For others, it’s a family tradition, hobby, a desire to know a food’s origins, or sometimes a money-saving venture.
Right now is an excellent time to begin planning your own summer garden. For one thing, it gets us dreaming of warmer times, which can be fun in and of itself. In addition, the cold months are perfect for research, discussion, and mapping out how your backyard, or even your front step, can be transformed. Involve your children in the entire process. Even the youngest ones can weigh in on their favorite veggies and page through seed catalogs or online gardening sites.
Choose a Garden Location and Style
Most of us have limited options as to where our garden can be, but think creatively. Consider container gardening in one or two large flower pots. This can be done indoors at a sunny window or even on a small patio or balcony. Nola Storm, an avid gardener who helped create south Fargo’s Growing Together Garden with new Americans, suggests rather than planting a traditional garden, try a salad garden in a pot.
“Plant a variety of garden greens in a large flower pot in a sunny location,” Storm says. “Keep it watered and snip off a salad almost every day. It looks pretty and tastes great.”
If you’re interested in a slightly larger garden, many people enjoy square foot gardens. This gardening method, described in detail in Mel Bartholomew’s book “All New Square Foot Gardening,” uses a special nutrient-rich soil in a raised garden bed to grow many plants in a very small area. The loose soil, dense plants, and raised bed lead to very little weeds, and all areas of the small bed (typically four-by-four feet) can easily be reached by gardeners. The Leiseths use this method for their gardens.
“I grew up on a farm and there were times when we had very large gardens,” Jon says. “I remember them as more of a chore. One aspect of the backyard gardening we’ve done in Moorhead is that the scale is very manageable. The major work is in building the beds and figuring out how to protect the plants from rabbits and other hungry critters.”
Raised beds can also be created on a larger scale with regular soil and compost. You can build them off the ground with everything from simple boards to beautiful pavers. Raising your garden off the ground several inches can be beneficial through more loosely packed soil, better moisture drainage, and room for more plants.
Starting a garden right in the ground is also a bit of work initially, but it is a very common method, especially with larger gardens.
“The ground has to be well prepared,” Storm says. “The spot must be staked out, grass removed, and compost added in the soil to make it richer. This all takes some sweat equity.”
Regardless of the garden style, it will fare best in full sun. Select a location you can easily access, which will prove helpful when it’s time to weed, water, and harvest. Near a rain barrel or hose connection, as well as your back door or patio, will also be handy. Plant flowers nearby to attract bees, essential for pollination.
“Keep your garden away from a neighbor who sprays a lot for dandelions and other weeds, too,” cautions organic gardener Noreen Thomas. “They could accidentally kill your crops.”
Keep it Simple
As you begin planning your first garden, successful gardeners emphasize keeping it small. You’ll appreciate having less to weed, water, and tend to during your first season. It will keep the entire project more manageable and allow your family to test out what works best for you. Jean Sando, whose family grows vegetables every summer at its Moorhead home says, “Do a little this year and then a little more. Don’t till up your whole backyard unless you’ve had some experience.”
Stick to just a few vegetables in pots or a small raised or in-ground garden. Go into the project knowing that you can always plant more in following years.
Good First Garden Crops
According to local gardening experts, these plants grow well in our soil:
Greens like lettuce, spinach, cabbage and kale
Know What You Like
As you begin thinking about what to plant, make a list of the vegetables each of your family members already like. What do you use most often in meals? What do you have a hard time keeping enough of in your fridge? What do you want to try more of?
Sando and her husband, Paul, always plant plenty of beans and peas, along with broccoli, herbs, tomatoes, carrots, beets, chard, and celery. They know their whole family will eat them and they grow well in their yard. Some years they try out other vegetables, as well.
“We added cucumbers and radishes this year because my daughter loves them so much,” Jean says. “It is true that they love to eat anything they’ve pulled from the garden, but my daughter’s radishes were all the more special because she planted them herself.”
The Leiseths follow a similar plan. Every summer, they grow carrots, beets, tomatoes, herbs, peppers, beans, and spinach because they are family favorites.
“Each year we try something as an experiment,” Jon says. “This year’s experiment that surprised us was sweet potato plants. They produced quite well and they were delicious.”
Storm suggests trying a small salsa garden featuring Roma tomatoes, jalapeños, onions, and cilantro. An indoor or outdoor herb garden is also a good starter project. Storm keeps her herbs in a small garden near her front steps. “It gets the most sun and I can walk out of the front door and pick tomatoes and herbs,” she says. “I mix in flowers so it looks pretty and attracts butterflies and bees.”
Benefits of a Family Garden
Local gardening experts offer these reasons for planting a backyard garden:
Kids are more likely to eat what they have grown.
It’s excellent physical activity.
Kids who grow up with a garden are more likely to have one later in life.
Gardening can be a needed downtime for busy children and adults.
The garden is a place of learning—cooking, science, new vocabulary, etc.
It helps you connect with nature.
Gardening together can help deepen family connections.
A garden can help set better eating habits for life.
It can save you money and deter you from hopping in the car to eat out.
Excess harvest can be donated to those in need.
Youʼll feel a sense of satisfaction.
Youʼll be able to enjoy some of the freshest and healthiest food.
Learn What Grows Well
Create a separate list of what plants or varieties grow especially well in our region. While it doesn’t hurt to try any vegetable, it’s rather encouraging to plant something that has a better chance of flourishing.
Ben Kragnes, of Kragnes Family Farms CSA near Kragnes, Minn., encourages every family to plant radishes because they are so easy to grow.
“Even if you don’t really care for them as a food, they are really rewarding to grow,” he says. “They only take four or five days to emerge from seed and another 20 to 25 to mature. They can grow in any weather, too.”
Kragnes also suggests growing cutting lettuce. “It is a great answer for the small garden because it produces so well,” he says. “It also has a long window for harvesting, about three weeks. Lettuce is also one of the easiest plants to save seeds from.”
Any green is great for a first garden, adds Abby Gold, who works for both the University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University Extension services. “Greens are especially healthy and hearty in the colder weather during spring and fall,” she says.
Along those lines, the gardening experts are quick to mention that excess harvest from your garden—including greens and radishes—should never be thrown. Share with a neighbor, friend, homeless shelter, or food shelf.
The big win is when you match your two lists and find those vegetables that made both your list of favorites and list of easy-growers. Those are your best bets for a family starter garden.
Map it Out
When you know what you want to grow, map it out. Planning your garden now will make it easier come planting time this spring. Draw out your garden (even if it’s just a pot) on a piece of paper and pencil in where you can see your different vegetables fitting. Remember they still have to fit when they are full size. Keep larger plants to the back and pay attention to climbing plants, including some beans and peas, which will require supports. If possible, consider adding a few pumpkin plants around the edges to keep out animals. (Though keep in mind that pumpkins are large, spreading plants.)
Sando spends every winter shopping online for seeds and planning out her garden. “I always make a map and some years I even stick to it,” she jokes.
The Leiseths also find mapping to be helpful. “I draw out the space for the raised beds and then list all of the possibilities of what might go in the spaces,” Tessa says. “Then, I narrow down what will go where. If I’m lucky, I get to order some seeds to fill in the empty spaces.”
While mapping, pour through seed catalogs for specific plants, ideas, and to start assembling your collection. Recommended companies include Seeds of Change, Jonny’s Seed Catalog, and Seed Savers. Stop by local nurseries to browse seed selections and ask for help, too.
Talk it Up
If, even after helping to plan the garden, your children are a bit reluctant, use the winter to talk up the garden. Explain how they will be able to plant the seeds and watch the plants peek out of the ground. Read stories about plants and gardening. Share what you are most looking forward to or memories you have of gardening as a child.
“The time spent with kids in the garden builds life memories,” Thomas says. “Picking strawberries with my parents is still a fond memory.”
Let kids pick out their own gardening gloves and a pair of rubber boots, Thomas suggests. You can also find them affordable gardening tools, such as spades and mini watering cans, at big box stores or nurseries. Talk about how these tools will help them take care of the plants. She encourages giving each child a section of the garden to be responsible for weeding. Talk about this before the garden is planted and show your excitement in their new responsibility. “Have them offer a tour to their grandparents or a neighbor,” she says. “They can show off their part of the garden. It’s a good motivator for getting the weeding done, too!”
Learn the Down and Dirty
Growing things is a lifelong learning process. Just ask any farmer. Once you get the “bug” for gardening, there is no end to the information and resources available. For your first year, start by gathering more information about the crops you’ve chosen and gardening in general. You will improve your odds of success as well as your confidence going into the new project.
Word of mouth is an excellent way to learn more about gardening. Visit with neighbors with successful backyard gardens, ask friends and family for their tips, and chat with vendors at farmer’s markets. Most people are eager to share their love of gardening, and their expertise is invaluable.
“I get most of my advice from an experienced neighbor, my mom, and books and magazines,” Sando says.
The county Extension Services are another excellent source. The extension offices and master gardeners can help with everything from testing your soil for nutritional needs to recommending plant varieties and growing tips. You can reach Clay County Extension at firstname.lastname@example.org and Cass County Extension at NDSU.Cass.Extension@ndsu.edu.
Local nurseries, such as Baker’s, Levi Runion’s, and Shotwell’s, are usually very happy to help, as well. There are a tremendous number of gardening magazines, books and websites. Head to the Fargo or Moorhead public libraries and find the gardening section, or browse the shelves of the local bookstore. Ask to borrow books from your gardening friends or check out their favorite websites.
Each June, Thomas hosts a Day on the Farm through Moorhead Community Education. She welcomes dozens of visitors to her farm near Kragnes, Minn., to meet with master gardeners and other experts. The day-long event lets people of all ages try homegrown vegetables, learn about a variety of gardening topics, and ask plenty of questions along the way. You can sign up this spring at https://communityed.moorhead.k12.mn.us/.
Look Forward to a Memorable Summer
You can’t beat home grown veggies, but for Jon Leiseth, their summer garden offers so much more.
“It’s something that we do together with the kids,” he says. “Both kids enjoy checking out how the plants are growing, and they were thrilled by pulling carrots out of the garden. Isaac ran down the sidewalk to share with a neighbor.
“This is good stuff. It’s good healthy food meets a fun science project meets something to share.”
Amanda Peterson is an award-winning writer with a love for the Web, social media, and magazines. She lives in Moorhead with her husband and two children.
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