Judging by the many phone calls to the Nebraska Extension office for Douglas-Sarpy Counties, people can’t wait to pull on their gloves, grab a shovel and start a vegetable garden.
It’s a mix of rookies, many prompted by being home due to the coronavirus, and those who want to expand beyond a tomato plant or two.
“They are looking for some good advice to do it well so they can have some produce,” said John Porter, urban agriculture program coordinator for Nebraska Extension.
It’s just about time to start. The chance of a killing frost has dropped below 50% in the Omaha area, and will be down to 10% by May 4. Just realize if you plant early, you may have to cover tender plants on frosty nights.
Porter recommends first doing a little research on what and how to plant, and then trying to curb your enthusiasm. Start small, instead of turning half your backyard into a victory garden that will feed all your neighbors and more.
“It can be more than you can manage,” he said.
Here are 10 tips from Porter for getting started.
1. Think about what produce you and your family enjoy and want to eat, and what you might want to can or freeze for later use. Your gardening will be the most effective and enjoyable when you love the end product. This can also help with planning what to grow and how much space you need.
2. Pick the right site. Most fruit-producing plants, such as tomatoes, peppers and squash, require full sun, which means at a minimum the site should receive six hours of sunshine. If you’re growing only plants like leafy greens, shadier spaces can be used. The site should be close to a water source and easily accessible.
3. Determine the right size for your garden. This can help produce the veggies that you want at a size that you can manage. Many home gardeners use raised beds as a way to reduce the garden footprint, grow lots of veggies in a small space and keep the work manageable. Even a few container gardens with veggies can be a good place to start.
4. Develop your garden space. Many new gardeners opt for raised beds because they can be built without having to till or dig the soil. Even if you don’t build or buy raised bed frames, gardening in beds can help with effective use of space. Layering several inches of soil and compost on top of the soil can build a bed quickly — no tilling required.
5. Know when to plant specific crops. It’s important to make sure you get the most production out of your plants and reduce pest problems. Cool-season crops such as broccoli, cabbage and leafy greens can be planted in spring and fall, but don’t fare well when the temperature rises. Warm-season crops like tomatoes, peppers, corn and squash need to wait until after frost has passed.
6. Know how to plant your crop. Some plants are best started as seeds in the garden, while others should be transplanted as seedlings that you’ve started yourself or purchased from the garden center. Root crops such as carrots, beets and radishes should be sown as seeds, as should corn and beans. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant should be planted as transplants. Some plants, like squash and cucumbers, can be planted either way.
7. Consider plant size at maturity. How big will your plants get? Understanding their size at full growth can help you plan out the garden space to make sure everything doesn’t run together. Not only is a messy garden hard to maintain, but diseases spread more easily when plants are too close together. Think of it as physical distancing for the garden.
8. Practice good pest management. Practices like mulching, using protective netting and selecting disease-resistant plants are called Integrative Pest Management, and can help reduce the probability that your garden will suffer from diseases and insects. These problems can result in decreased yield, dead or damaged plants and inedible fruits and veggies. Planting flowers and herbs in or around your garden can attract pollinators and beneficial bugs that eat bad bugs.
9. Manage issues while they’re small. If your garden does suffer from diseases or insects, there are several options for managing the issues to slow the spread or save the plant. Gardeners can use organic or conventional treatment options to deal with most issues. Knowing what to use and when to use it can help keep gardens healthy and productive throughout the season.
10. Harvest properly. Proper harvesting is just as important as proper growing. Knowing when produce is ready to harvest and how to store it can increase the storage life and edibility of your crops. Practicing food safety like hand-washing and sanitation is also important to extend produce life and reduce potential health risks.