According to Jeff Becker, master gardener and co-owner of Becker Florist, one of the biggest mistakes gardeners make is planting their vegetable plants in the ground too early. Gardeners will be happy that their plants are producing tomatoes and other vegetables, that they will get impatient and plant them when the soil is still too cold.
Overall, gardening vegetables, fruits, and flowers is a rewarding hobby, especially in central Iowa, Becker said.
“We are very fortunate to live in an area with fantastic soil.” he said. “We have such good soil.”
It can be difficult to know exactly when to start your garden.
“That’s the million dollar question” said Becker.
For many vegetables, like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, Mother’s Day is when they should be planted in the ground, Becker said. Before that, and they risk late spring frosts, and after that, they risk not producing a crop until late summer.
However, growing vegetables is not an exact science. Vegetables in the cabbage family, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and kale, thrive better in colder temperatures, making them safe to plant in the ground in early spring. Planting them too late—or an unusually warm spring—can result in bolting or premature flowering and reduce the harvest produced.
Another mistake some gardeners make is planting things in the garden “wrong place”.
“Planting a shady thing in too much sun, or vice versa” said Becker. “You have something that just burns up, or something that just sits there and doesn’t bloom because you didn’t give it enough sun.”
It’s important to plan carefully what and where to plant them, he said. A gardener needs to make sure not to plant vegetables too close together so that they crowd the roots or that the plant doesn’t outgrow its spot.
It is also important to change the plants from year to year, he said. Don’t plant tomatoes in the same spot in the garden every year – move them around and swap them out for other vegetables.
Although Becker said it’s too early to get most vegetables into the ground, now is the time to start inside if you want to grow them from seed. Seeds need to sprout several inches before they can be planted in a garden, so starting now gives them time to grow before going into the ground next month.
And even if an experienced gardener plans the planting perfectly, they are still at the mercy of the weather.
“All you have to do is plant and hope for the best” said Becker.
Becker had advice for someone starting their first garden.
“Don’t get too big” he said. “Because it gets hot in Iowa and you have to go out there and mow weeds and water and there are bugs and mosquitoes. Start small, you can grow bigger in a year or two.”
Some popular tomato varieties in this area, Becker said, include the Early Girl variety, as well as Big Boy and Parks Whopper. Roma tomatoes, used in tomato paste and salsas, are also growing in popularity, he said.
“Gardeners find their favorites pretty quickly” he said.
A Messenger reader wanted to know if there are any animal-safe alternatives to weed killers. Becker’s suggestion is pretty simple – leaves.
“I like to keep a few sacks of leaves from fall and have them in my garden, and then if things go reasonably well I’ll put six or seven inches of leaves through my tomatoes.” he said. “And when fall comes, all the leaves will decompose down to the dirt and improve your soil there.”
Grass clippings can also be used as mulch, he said, provided dandelion killer hasn’t been used on the lawn.
When it comes to flower gardens, planning comes down to what the gardener wants to see. But Becker cautioned that it’s important to pay attention to the labels on the plants to know how tall they’re likely to grow.
“You don’t want to put something that’s 24 inches tall in front of something that’s not.” he said. “Make sure you have the bigger things in the back and hopefully get something that blooms all summer so you have continuous color.”
Iowa State University’s Webster County Extension and Outreach has a wealth of resources to help home gardeners plan and plant their ideal gardens.
The resources cover everything from where to start a vegetable garden, recommended vegetables for planting, how to use containers for the garden, the right techniques for planting potatoes, and more.
Gardeners can access these resources for free by visiting www.extension.iastate.edu/webster/news/yard-gardenhorticulture.
Webster County will be attending the ISU Fall Extension and Outreach Classes for Master Gardeners this fall. Applications are possible from June 3rd and must be submitted by July 1st. The course starts on August 22nd.
And at the end of the growing season, gardeners often want to preserve their produce. Webster County Extension also supports this. A list of these courses can be found at www.extension.iastate.edu/webster/news/virtual-food-preservation-classes-offered.