Nutritious gardens: Master gardners share ways any gardener can grow produce

2014-04-14T21:00:00Z 2014-04-16T16:50:07Z Nutritious gardens: Master gardners share ways any gardener can grow produceChristine Bryant Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
April 14, 2014 9:00 pm  • 

Choosing which fruits and vegetables to plant in your garden can often feel like a stop light: green—even newbies shouldn’t have problems, yellow—use caution if you’re a novice, and red—don’t even think about it.

April is often a month of planning for gardeners, and local master gardeners say this is the perfect time to research which plants have the best odds at producing bountiful returns, and which ones you’re willing to take a chance on.

Whether you’re a beginner or master at gardening, here are some recommendations from local gardeners of fruits and vegetables you should try this season.

Beginners

Sacha Gee-Burns said she loves tomatoes. In fact, the operator of an organic farm in LaPorte specializes in growing chemical-free heirloom varieties—75 varieties of tomatoes alone.

“For beginners, the best plants to start a garden with are hybrid variety tomato plants, which are bred to be more resistant to an array of issues that plague gardeners from time to time,” she said.

Most first-time gardeners should be successful growing a few basic root vegetables as well, like radishes, carrots and beets, said Bill Tobin, an Illinois Master Gardener.

“Kids especially get a bang out of sowing these seeds in early spring and watching little green sprouts pop up a week or two later,” he said. “Just follow the directions on the seed packet and be sure to thin the seedlings when they come up so they are not crowded and spindly.”

Greens like lettuce and Swiss chard are also fairly easy to direct sow in the spring garden, Tobin said.

“Onion sets, both for full-sized onions and for scallions, are also easy to grow,” he said.

Because soils in Northwest Indiana—whether clay or sandy—can be a challenge for new gardeners to grow in because of their alkaline nature, amending the soil to bring the PH closer to neutral is important, said Maureen Phillips, with Porter County Master Gardeners.

“One way to control the soil is to use raised beds,” she said. “After amending my clay for several years, I added raised beds a couple of years ago. That way, I can better control the soil that’s in the box to give my plants the nourishment they need to flourish.”

Experienced

Those who have tried gardening for a few years and have had success should try incorporating some heirloom varieties, Gee-Burns said.

“While the yields are usually lower, the flavor definitely makes up for it,” she said. “Raspberries and strawberries are great fruits to try as long as you can wait a year for them to take root for your first crop.”

Experienced gardeners should also try various types of “cucurbits”—from cucumbers and easy summer varieties of squash like zucchini to winter varieties like acorn, spaghetti and butternut. Although they are fairly easy to grow, Tobin said, they require a lot of space and insect pests like vine borers can be a problem.

“Also at this stage, gardeners might like to try brassicas, like broccoli and cabbage,” he said. “Cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are a little trickier and are often grown in the fall.”

Asparagus, leeks and okra are also great options for gardeners wanting to try something new, though each has its own challenges and requires some advanced know-how and a lot of patience, Tobin said.

Though potatoes are fun to grow, they also require deep planting of seed potatoes, or little cut-up pieces of a potato, and proper care as they grow.

“They are well worth the effort because nothing is fluffier and tastier than a home-grown potato right out of the ground,” Tobin said.

Phillips recommended more experienced gardeners to start plants from seed. Doing so increases their cultivar options beyond the bedding plants stocked at the store, she said.

“Growing organically is definitely for experienced gardeners because it requires close attention to plants and insects, but you do know what’s in your food when you grow it organically,” she said.

Advanced

Gardeners with advanced skills often look for new challenges, which is why Gee-Burns recommends trying more unique varieties of edibles.

“Pattypan squash, which taste similar to summer squash, are really fun saucer shaped vegetables,” she said. “They require good insect pollination, which may be tricky for newbie gardeners to arrange.”

Currants and blueberries, which have more specific soil needs, are also good challenges for advanced gardeners, she said.

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