Chilly temps, sandy soil challenge area gardeners
People are once again venturing out and planting gardens, so what should Brainerd lakes area residents be planting that will grow locally, when should they be planting, what tips are there for beginners and for those with mobility problems or small spaces, how can they also garden?
BRAINERD — Gardeners in the Brainerd lakes area need something this spring besides water, soil and seeds to be successful: patience.
“Everybody's been anxious to plant, but Mother Nature's not quite working with us as well as the sun,” said Steven Armstrong, co-owner of Erickson’s Greenhouse in Brainerd. “But it's been nice and busy, and everybody's excited to get out in the yard and get back into gardening.”
Colder-than-average temperatures combined with sandy soil in some parts have stymied aspiring horticulturists. But area master gardeners like Jackie Burkey of Brainerd are ready to help.
“The last couple of years have been challenging because we got real warm and then we get real cold. Last year, we had a June frost,” she said. “But this year has been almost harder because it stayed cold for so long and people are just ready to go. They want to get out and get to work.”
April has been colder and wetter than usual, which has gardeners feeling restless, according to the University of Minnesota Extension.
“While it’s not too early to complete a few garden tasks despite the cold and dreary weather, others should be left for warmer days ahead,” the Extension reported.
“‘When can I plant?’ is the No. 1 question right now because it was too cold for too long and then too wet,” Burkey said. “The No. 1 challenge for us is the weather, that we're in such a cold place. There are an awful lot of things we'd like to grow but they won't survive our winters.”
Armstrong said he’s had good luck for the past 15 years planting Memorial Day weekend.
“Everybody's anxious and wants to get in the ground, especially if we get some warmer weather, like in the previous weeks leading up to now. It's probably one of the hardest things about gardening is being patient and waiting until the right time to plant,” Armstrong said.
Burkey added, “My grandpa, who lived in Brainerd, always said don't do anything before Memorial Day. … It's just too risky up here. … Some things like peppers and basil — even though they might survive — they'll never quite recover from having gotten too cold.”
According to the University of Minnesota Extension experts, now is the time to plant peas, lettuce, brassicas (cabbage), spinach, chard and other cool-season crops. As for what to do about vegetables, Armstrong said people have already been buying supplies to be prepared.
“A lot of people will come in just to make sure they get everything that they want because a lot of things will sell out fairly fast,” he said. “They'll have to take care of them, or they'll bring them outside during the day and leave them out during the day and then bring them in at night.”
'Ready, set, grow!"
For beginners, a great resource to check out is the Master Gardener Variety trials. Each year, volunteers choose eight types of plants, then select six varieties of each that they expect to perform well in Minnesota. They try them in their gardens and report back with their favorites.
“These trials have been going on since the 1980s, so there is an abundance of recommendations on their site. The varieties they select are easy to find, and good choices for beginners,” according to the university Extension website at bit.ly/3NnAqkE .
“If people plant a lot and then things aren't successful, people tend to get frustrated right away and then don't do it anymore, so I would say start small and just ask your local nurseries,” Armstrong said. “There's a lot of plants that are easier to care for, some that are a little harder.”
Potatoes are the most popular vegetable in America with 14 states searching how to grow them more than any other vegetable, according to AllAboutGardening.com . Cucumbers are the second most popular vegetable and beetroots are the third most popular vegetable to grow.
“It's really tempting to put them in the ground,” Armstrong said of spring planting. “But last year, I know we had a late frost. It was like a couple of days before Memorial Day, we had a real deep frost and it took out a lot of plants.”
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources provides information about the average last frost date for a particular area. It can be found at bit.ly/3NnzP2k .
When the threat of frost has passed, people can begin to plant warm-season vegetables and herbs. For sensitive crops like tomatoes and peppers, it’s generally best to wait until the soil has warmed to around 60 degrees, the University of Minnesota Extension reported.
But weather isn’t the only obstacle to planting a garden.
“Critters are also a terrible problem,” Burkey said, specifically noting deer. “They just view our gardens as lunch buffets … eating all those nice new little things that pop up. A 7-foot fence is the only thing that's guaranteed to keep out deer because when they're hungry they'll eat anything.”
Many people will also have to contend with dead areas of lawn because of the extreme drought and heat of 2021, so experts advise selecting seeds that suit someone’s particular growing conditions. Once the soil has dried out, a seed and topsoil mix can be put down in bare areas.
“Sandy soil is tough because the water just wants to drain through it. Clay soil is difficult for the exact opposite reason because it just wants to hold onto water,” Burkey said. “Compost is the best way to solve both those problems.”
University of Minnesota Extension
Cool temps and spring rain provide ideal conditions for tree and shrub establishment, according to the University of Minnesota Extension, and is great for planting dormant nursery stock including plants purchased bare-root, containerized, container-grown, and balled and burlapped.
“Potatoes are one of the first things people usually plant because they can handle the cold more,” Armstrong said. “Cabbages and kohlrabi and some of those are more your cold-weather ones, so they can handle a little more in the cold so some people already have those planted.”
The University of Minnesota Extension website includes a gardening calendar that is intended as a guide to maintaining flower and vegetable gardens in the Upper Midwest and covers the general care needed to adequately maintain an average home garden.
“Just be patient and hold off until we really know we're past the cold weather. I think patience is the No. 1 problem. … I think for new gardeners they tend to go too big too soon,” Burkey said for gardening beginners.
It’s also good for gardeners to start small and work their way to a bigger garden.
“Start with just like a small raised bed, which are typically a little easier to maintain. They don't get run over with weeds so bad and all that, so you have a little more success if you start with a raised bed,” Armstrong said. “They warm up a little easier, they drain a little better.”
Planting early, short-season crops in the same beds as later maturing crops is a way to conserve space and grow multiple successions of plants in the same space, according to Natalie Hoidal, Extension educator.
Examples include planting lettuce, spinach or basil early in the season, and transplanting peppers or tomatoes into the same bed as the early season crop matures, Hoidal said.
Also, make sure your gardening equipment is up to the job, Burkey added.
“Invest in good tools,” Burkey said. “Cheap tools, cheap rakes, cheap shovels, cheap pruners just won't serve you well, so if you're really going to become a gardener, better to have a couple of really good tools that will last a lifetime.”
Vertical gardens, raised gardens
For those without a lot of gardening space or a big backyard, there are some inventive ways to use vertical space and “garden up” with vining veggies such as peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, squash, and Malibar summer spinach, according to The Old Farmer's Almanac.
“As long as you have a good support system in place, vining vegetables aren’t just a nice alternative, they actually produce more per square foot than bush-type varieties of vegetables. It’s also easier to keep an eye out for pests,” according to the publication.
Location can also be beneficial for such gardens.
“If they have south-facing windows and stuff, there are lots of neat little things to kind of grow — herbs and stuff like that — in windows. Otherwise, pots or baskets — anything like that — to hang outside will work,” Armstrong said of growers.
The basic steps to constructing a vertical garden: build a frame, attach water-proof plastic sheeting, attach fabric to hold water, set up an irrigation system, add fertilizer injector and attach an irrigation system to a water source, according to Popular Mechanics at bit.ly/3wvCKjN .
“If you're in a small space, container gardening has been kind of a bigger thing lately,” Armstrong said for those renting or with small yards. “You can put them on your balcony or just out by your steps and move them into more sun. … You're not digging up yards or anything.”
Raised garden beds are perfect for those who are older and may have difficulty crouching and bending. The garden beds are basically a flat surface atop legs that elevate it off the ground.
“You're not bent over all day, which gets hard on your back and stuff,” Armstrong said of raised garden beds that can be built or purchased. ‘They have some that are on carts and wheels, and it's just probably a 10-inch deep tray you can roll around … but everything's up at your height.”
Master gardener volunteers like Burkey, in particular, are eager to help make things easier for gardeners. University of Minnesota-trained volunteers educate the public about a variety of horticulture subjects using readily available, up-to-date research-based information.
“My advice is always to start small, start with a small garden. Make sure you enjoy it, that you enjoy spending time in your garden. Gardening can be a lot of work, and you have to be prepared to do that work or you'll just fail,” Burkey said.
Gardening tips for a cold spring
- Keep pollinators such as bees in mind — Leaves left on the ground provide important insulation for bees hibernating underground and for moths and butterflies that overwinter in the leaves. Leaving your leaves where they are until temperatures are above 50 degrees for five consecutive days will give most of those hibernating pollinators the protection that they need.
- Early spring in the vegetable garden — Check the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ last frost date map to get the average last frost date for your area. When the threat of frost has passed, gardeners can begin to plant warm-season vegetables and herbs.
- Early season lawn care — Wear and tear on lawns is worse when soil is wet and temperatures are on the cooler side. Hold off on lawn care until the soil and grass dry out for a healthy lawn later this year.
- Tree planting and care — Cool temperatures and spring rain provide ideal conditions for tree and shrub establishment. This time of the year is great for planting dormant nursery stock including plants purchased bare-root, containerized, container-grown, and balled and burlapped.