8 minute read

Let's Garden

Let’s Garden

Tips for growing plentiful produce and flourishing flowers.

By Ann Foster Thelen

Growing your own food can be immensely satisfying, yet it can be intimidating for first-time gardeners and even challenging for those with the greenest thumbs. Tomatoes are often feast or famine, broccoli and cauliflower are fussy, and herbs can quickly take over a space.

With thoughtful planning and advice from experts, urban dwellers and those with vast spaces can master the art of gardening.

The recipe for a bountiful garden combines equal parts of soil quality, proper planting and fertilizing, suppressing weeds and pests, and proper harvesting along with a dash of help from Mother Nature.

Digging In Cristen Clark is well-versed in agriculture. She lives on a farm near Runnells, where her family raises pigs and grows soybeans and corn. She’s also an award-winning baker and cook, but was a gardening novice. Last spring, with the help of Earl May Garden Centers, Clark decided to dig in and grow a new hobby.

“This was my first effort at a real garden, which ended up being about 5,000 square feet,” says Clark, who enlisted the help of her husband Mike and children Halle and Barrett. “The highlight was growing everything we liked and having an abundance of food to share with family and friends.”

In addition to the vegetable garden, the family planted flowers to attract pollinators. With bees buzzing and butterflies fluttering, wings were at work, enhancing the environment.

Ten-year-old Barrett fell in love with gardening and rushed to the plot each morning to do weeding and watering chores. Those tasks were secondary to the thrill of finding new cucumbers growing under their leafy vines or picking a perfectly ripe tomato.

Reaping the rewards of an abundance of produce, he started “Pup’s Produce,” selling vegetables and flower arrangements to friends and neighbors to raise money for college.

Ryan Case, manager of the Earl May Garden Center in Ankeny, worked closely with Clark on all aspects of the garden, from planning and planting to fertilizing and harvesting. Whether working with a large garden plot, a suburban space or container gardening, Case’s steps for success are universal no matter how large or small the space.

Step 1: Planning

Planning your garden is essential to maximize yield, especially in smaller gardens. Follow the package guidelines for spacing and seek out information about what to plant next to each other. If space is limited, look for compact, bushy varieties of vegetables that will take up less room.

“A lot of different vegetables and herbs grow well in containers, including tomatoes and peppers,” Case says. “We even see people grow potatoes in buckets or containers on decks and patios.”

If you have plenty of room, a southern exposure will produce the earliest crops. Avoid locating a garden where large trees or buildings would shade it.

TIP: Before sowing seeds, read the packet instructions for proper spacing and depth. Some types will only need to be slightly covered. Keeping the soil moist is critical to starting seeds.

Step 2: Soil Preperation

“Having the best soil possible is the fundamental key to growing great vegetables,” Case explains. “Often in suburbs and communities, the soil has a high clay content and needs to be amended. Soil tests are helpful to understand the composition and nutrient profile of the soil.”

Soil amendments help break apart clay and allow for better water drainage in any setting. Adding other organic matter, such as compost or manure, adds nutrients that are not in the soil and don’t come from fertilizers.

“For a new garden, we often recommend adding two to three inches of organic matter over the entire space,” Case explains. “For more established gardens, an inch of coverage each year is typical, and it can be tilled into the soil.”

For container gardening, purchasing garden soil eliminates the need for soil amendments or organic matter.

Step 3: Planting and Succession Planting

Plant tall-growing crops (like corn) or those that are staked or trellised (like pole beans) along the north side of the garden so they will not shade low-growing vegetables. Plant early-maturing crops together.

After harvest, this strategy opens up space for succession planting or a fall garden.

“Succession planting is spacing out your plantings, so you have yields throughout the year,” Case says. “It works well with cold-temperaturetolerant crops that mature really quickly. For example, radishes can be planted several weeks in a row, so you have yields throughout the season.”

In Iowa, cold temperature crops that tolerate a hard frost include broccoli, cabbage, collards, kale, kohlrabi, peas, radishes, spinach and turnips.

If planting from seeds to start plants indoors, visit with a garden expert to discuss optimal growing conditions and tips for transplanting outdoors.

Step 4: Fertilizer

Nitrogen, phosphorus and potash are the key ingredients in most fertilizers. Organic matter provides nutrients, such as magnesium and calcium, essential for fruits and vegetables.

“Adding calcium to your garden is very important. It can help with fruit development, and it helps prevent blossom end rot on your tomatoes,” Case says. “Fertilizing is so important with things like vegetables because they have such a short season, and you want to try to maximize the yield.”

Step 5: Weed Suppression

Weed suppression in a garden is critical, so weeds aren’t competing for the same nutrients the plants need.

“Cleaning the garden area is the first step. Then, we recommend using Preen or a similar product to prevent weed seeds from germinating,” Case explains.

A word of caution: If you're planning to plant flowers or vegetables directly in the garden from seeds, don’t use something like Preen because it will prevent all seeds, including vegetable or flower seeds, from growing.

Step 6: Harvesting

Harvesting vegetables at the right stage of maturity results in high-quality, nutritious produce that will store well if conditions are right. For example, leaf lettuce is most crisp when outer leaves are four to six inches long. Peas are tender and flavorful if picked when pods are well filled but not hard and starchy. Kohlrabi will have the mildest flavor when thickened stems are two to three inches in diameter.

TIP: On average, spending $70 on garden seeds will give you $600 worth of fresh produce!

Things Kids Love to Grow











Cristen’s Tips for First-Time Gardeners

1. Plant what you love to eat.

2. Keep it simple. Pick one or two varieties of your favorites, and then stick to it.

3. Manage the soil to keep plants healthy.

4. Weed a little bit every day.

5. Plant flowers to attract pollinators and add beauty to your garden and table.

Visit iowafoodandfamily.com to watch a series of videos from Cristen Clark’s garden project.

Plants for Pollinators

Imagine a world without flowers, fruits, vegetables and more. The importance of pollinators has never been higher. Declining bee populations are a problem, but they aren’t the only ones who pollinate. Birds, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats, wasps and flies all play a role in pollination. Along with farmers who frequently devote land to creating pollinator habitats, backyard gardening enthusiasts can also plant flowers to attract nature’s flying friends.

Attracts Hummingbirds: Daylily, Gladiolus, Lilies, Petunias, Salvia, Sweet William

Attracts Bees: Clover, Coneflowers, Milkweed

Attracts Butterflies: Coneflowers, Dianthus, Hollyhocks, Lilies, Marigolds, Milkweed, Peonies, Petunias, Sunflowers, Sweet William


• 12 cups of chopped fresh garden lettuce, cleaned

• 4-5 green onions, chopped and divided

• ½ cup sugar snap peas, strung and roughly chopped

• 8-10 regular thickness bacon strips, chopped, cooked and drippings reserved (approximately 1/3 cup)

• 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar or red wine vinegar

• 1½ tablespoons sugar or sugar alternative

• 4 to 8 hard-boiled eggs

• Salt and pepper to taste

• ¼ cup salted sunflower kernels, optional

In a large bowl, add lettuce and half the green onions. Keep the bacon grease warm in a skillet over mediumlow heat; add sugar and vinegar. Stir and heat for 30 seconds. Remove from heat. Add remaining green onions, chopped snap peas and cooked bacon. Dress salad with this mixture. Divide among four plates. Top each plate with a sliced hardboiled egg, salt and pepper. If desired, add sunflower seeds. Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

Win a $100 gift card to Earl May Garden Centers for your planting project. Visit iowafoodandfamily.com/magazine/garden and enter to win.