I shall proffer, firstly, my definition of the Midwest for this post’s purposes: Wisconsin, Minnesota, both Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, northern Illinois, and… bear with me… Montana, Wyoming, and northern Colorado. Now, if you’ll indulge this tangent, I’d never consider (as a lifelong Midwesterner) anything west of the Missouri River to be the Midwest. But as gardening goes, these states are all mostly in the same USDA Hardiness Zones… so y’all out west can come sit with us on the Midwest Coast for the purposes of this guide.
Now, if you’ve identified yourself as a Mid-West-Westerner and you want to start a vegetable garden, you’ll be pleased to know that, as of now (April), you’re ahead of the curve! For most of us hanging out in Zones 3 and 4, our average last frost date is out in mid-to-late May so we’ve got some time to plan. You can go here to type in your zip code to get your average last frost date.
Please do me a favor and remember that these numbers are mere guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Your local weather app/site is going to give you the local information you need. Keep an eye on those overnight low temperatures (and maybe set a Frost Alert?) and make your judgements accordingly. And don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by unseasonably warm spells (ask me how I know!). Its far, far better to wait a week for good weather than to forge ahead and get (frost)burned. Zing! Let’s get to it!
Gardening isn’t actually all that complicated IF you pay attention to a few key things (and have a general understanding of why they are important). Here they are:
Soil: Given our vast geographical spread, this one is going to vary a whole lot. If you are west of the Missouri River, chances are strong that you have a whole lot of rocks in your dirt. Here in the MN-WI area we range from sand and clay to the sort of soil you see in glossy gardening magazines. If you’ve got that Glamour Shots dirt, go ahead and get stuck in with that in-ground bed.
If you’ve got some average or frankly crap dirt (we have sand, so, crap dirt), your best bet is going to be raised beds or containers (more on that later). But what your soil is made up of tells you how its going to perform. Sandy soil won’t hold on to water and doesn’t have a lot of food in it. Clay soil will hold on to too much water regardless of how much food is in it. Rocky soil makes it harder for plants to establish good root systems and is AWFUL to dig in. Glamour Shots dirt has the perfect balance of drainage and plenty of good plant food (organic material and minerals).
The bad news is that Glamour Shots dirt is a bit hard to come by naturally. The good news is that it is VERY easy to come by at a big box store (they literally sell it in bags). Use potting soil for containers and a 1:1 mix of potting and garden soil for raised beds.
Sun: Vegetables need a lot of sun. Period. We’re talking at least 8 hours per day. And I’m talking full, blazing, un-dappled sun. When you decide where to site your vegetable growing area, this must (MUST!) be your primary criteria. Don’t put it somewhere convenient that only gets 4 or 6 hours of sun. If you want your tomatoes to be happy and give you tomatoes, you need to give them what they need to thrive.
You can take a good sunny day and set an alarm on your phone for every hour or so. Check that spot you think will work when your alarm goes off to tally how many hours that spot gets sun, but you must remember that for most of us, our trees haven’t leafed out yet, so don’t let that Maple tree still in bud fool you into think you’ve got more sun than you do. And remember that all of your plants don’t have to be in one location- a few containers dotted around in your sunniest locations is better than one big bed in a less-than ideal spot.
Growing Days: This is a bit more technical, but up here in the North (I know we said Mid-West-West, but honestly, we are pretty far North) we don’t get as many growing days as most of our other countrymen and women. Wisconsin technically has around 100-105 growing days, but I secretly think most years that is overly charitable (you can do a quick search for your state/county/city and growing days to get your estimate). What this number means is basically the number of days between your last and first frosts.
For most vegetables, this number doesn’t matter much. But for some things like sweet potatoes and some melons, some squashes, and other hot climate/tropical plants we don’t have enough growing days to actually harvest mature fruit/veg. Like, you could spend all summer tending to your sweet potato plant only to have an October frost kill it before you ever get a potato. Heartbreak. So know what you are working with so that you don’t try to grow things that will only disappoint you later.
Now its time to figure out what sort of vegetable growing contraption you are going to use. There aren’t any wrong answers here, only whatever works for your conditions.
In Ground Beds: These are the cheapest to construct, but its also back-breaking work. You’ll have to remove all of the grass/sod/weeds in the area (not an easy task, but very doable) and then loosen up the soil structure. You’ll need a study shovel, a wheelbarrow (to move the sod chunks), and a garden fork to loosen up that dirt. You’ll also need pretty good soil as amending these is hard, hard work (unless you have a tiller, but that’s another story for another time).
Raised Beds: These can be anything from a few (untreated) boards screwed together to fancy metal kits, to stone or brick that will last years and years. The world is your oyster! These are what we use and are relatively easy to build. A few layers of cardboard or a bunch of layers of newspaper on the bottom, once built, and a whole lot of dirt filled into it, and you are off to the races! The beauty of these is that they are taller (meaning they are easier to work at), warm up faster (sooner to plant in), and can be arranged and organized to suit your space.
We use raised beds and this is what I would recommend if you have the space. They are great for beginners and can be a really easy construction project with minimal equipment needed. My only recommendation is to make sure, if you build your own, that the beds aren’t more than 4 feet wide. This makes it easy on yourself when you are harvesting and weeding your beds- you’ll be able to easily reach everything without stepping on your soil which is a no-no.
Containers: This is where creativity reigns supreme. Anything from terracotta pots to galvanized tubs, 5-gallon buckets to half wine barrels and fabric growing bags. As long as it has some holes for drainage and is at least 8″ deep (preferably 12″+) you can grow a whole host of vegetables wherever you have enough sun. What these will need more of is water and attention. With their smaller footprint comes less soil and these will need watering every day (sometimes twice a day if it is dry/windy/excessively hot).
Now we get to talk about what to grow. Frankly, as long as it will mature in about 100 days (95 to be extra safe) you can try to grow it. My biggest advice is to grow things you actually like eating. If you don’t love zucchini, don’t grow it (even if everyone tells you its easy) because you’ll be drowning in squash that you don’t want to eat and will be leaving on your neighbors’ doorsteps in the middle of the night.
Go to your local nursery (or big box store) if you are still able to (or call them/order online) and pick out the plants you want. Tomatoes, squash, peppers, melons, strawberries, eggplant, cucumbers, broccoli/cauliflower, and the like are best bought as plants. Look for healthy, sturdy plants and read the labels. They are there for a reason!
Big box stores (and some nurseries, I’d imagine) still have seeds. Plenty of veggies will grow from seed without any extra equipment*. Peas, carrots, kale, radishes, beets, lettuce, spinach, turnips, beans, chard/collards, and other greens are, in fact, best grown in the ground straight from seed. (*Peas and climbing beans will need a bit of support as well) These veggies are hardy, easy to grow, and compact.
Be reasonable about how much you’ll eat or be able to process (can or freeze or dehydrate) and be mindful of spacing. Tomato plants are big and need supports, but you can fit 16 carrots in one square foot. Zucchini takes up at least 2.5 square feet. Melons and squash are vines and they will break free from wherever you plant them.
I did a whole series called “Let’s Talk Veg” on the types of vegetables and what I thought were good varieties and the pros and cons of each one. Check that out if you want specifics.
Alright, this is us getting down to brass tacks. There are a few things that your plants will absolutely need in order to a) not die and b) give you a decent crop. Water. Mulch and/or Weeding. Attention.
Attention might be the most important item! You can’t plant these and forget about them! They are like stationary little babies that need your love and care. Plant Tamagotchis. Ignore them and they will die and you will have no tomatoes and exclaim that gardening is hard. Check in on your plants daily (or even two times a day)! Check for soil moisture, check for pests (they always arrive in small numbers and can be crushed like your favorite video game bad guys if you catch them early enough), and check for general health and well-being of the plant. DO NOT FORGET ABOUT YOUR PLANT BABIES!
Watering is also really important. Thirsty plants are unhappy plants. Unhappy plants are prone to pests and don’t produce fruit. The general advice is to water deeply less frequently (meaning if you have containers the water will run out the bottom, or if you have raised or in-ground beds you’ll use up to a whole watering can on large plants) rather than a little water daily, but if it is hot and dry you may have to water daily anyway (looking at you Westerners, your hot and dry winds will sap the moisture out of your plants at an alarming rate, y’all might be watering containers 2x daily). BUT, don’t drown them! If you stick your finger into the dirt and can feel damp soil, hold off another day. Too much water is not a good thing. (And if this sounds like too tough a needle to thread, there are moisture meters available online to help). Soaked hoses, timers, and irrigation systems are available too, it’s just down to how much you want to invest.
Mulch and weeding aren’t the sexiest of gardening topics. But weeds mean competition and we want to give our plant babies every advantage ( be the Tiger Parent your plants deserve!). A simple hand hoe (these are my two favorites here and here) will let you get in there and kill those weeds. It’ll be like a real-life Candy Crush wherein the candy is the weeds and instead of points you get happy plants. Topping your containers or beds with mulch will help keep the weeds at bay and keep the moisture in the soil. Don’t go using giant, chunky bark mulch but things like dried out grass clippings, pine needles, or dried leaves (free and easy!), shredded paper (just not glossy paper), chicken grit (look in the livestock section, its cheap and easy to use but heavy), or cocoa bean mulch (bonus, it smells just like cocoa) will work wonders.
Have No Fear
The last bits of advice I can give you is to 1) not be afraid and 2) seek out good advice.
All of us gardeners fail at something (or many somethings) every year. I’m a Master Gardener and I’ve had plants die on me. I’ve had things produce no crop at all. I’ve missed pest infestations until it was too late. I’ve accidentally killed a plant while trying to weed around it. I’ve forgotten a container and had a wilted, dead tomato plant body I had to hide from the authorities. Its okay to make mistakes. Just try to learn from them. Don’t beat yourself up and don’t set crazy Martha-Stewart-level expectations for yourself.
As for the good advice, just stay away from Pinterest. When you search for things, try using your state in the search (like, “Montana Bug on Cucumber” or “Minnesota Wilting Tomato”, as it will likely get you to a gardener in your area or a local University Extension office. These are the people who will actually be able to help you, give you tried and true advice, and know what is going on in your area.
Oh, and lastly, go have fun! I’ll be here if you have questions or need advice.
Also, HUGE thank you to Dee at Red Dirt Ramblings for her awesome idea for this post! She did one for Oklahoma that is just fantastic so give her a follow!
Be well, stay safe, wear your masks, and wash your hands!