The hungry insurgent: Starting suggestions and events for first-time gardeners


If you have decided to try gardening for the very first time and you are not sure where to start, this month’s column is for you. For a change I have a good amount of expertise, since I myself am a fairly recent gardener and I remember most of my mistakes. Here are my suggestions.

First, you need to figure out what you want to plant. Start with what you like to eat.

The fresh flavor of homegrown produce may astound you, so if you only sort of like tomatoes from the store, you are in for a surprise when you taste your first garden-fresh tomato. But, if you hate broccoli or have allergies to eggplant, for goodness sake don’t grow them. (Unless, like me, you have a wife who loves beets even though you hate them, but that is not actually a gardening issue.)

Second, you need a location. Most veggies like a lot of sun. Take a few minutes to walk slowly around your house and see if you can find a site within reach of the hose, an area that gets several hours of sunlight a day. The more sunlight, the better. (In Minneapolis, it is legal to grow veggies in your front yard, by the way.)

If you live in an apartment building or a house deep in the urban jungle, don’t be discouraged. There are several possibilities out there. Community gardens are great resources, not only because they have sun and water available, but also because they are filled with friendly people who are happy to make suggestions.

You can go to and click on the link for “Garden Directory” or call them at 612-821-2358. If the nearby community gardens are all full, you could use a service called Yards to Gardens, which matches busy people with yards and gardeners without yards; their website is www:// And if that doesn’t work, just walk around your neighborhood some sunny afternoon, spot an empty back yard (maybe from the alley) and boldly ask your neighbor if you can dig up their grass and use their water in exchange for some veggies. What’s the worst thing they can say to you?

Third, you will need some seeds and plants. I personally love the Friends School Plant Sale, held Mother’s Day Weekend at the State Fairground. You can look at their wonderful catalog online at or call them up at 651-621-8930 and ask them to mail you one. Their prices are reasonable. Their plants are quality. And this year they have a special feature of Seed Savers seeds, offering some tasty heirloom varieties.

I have experienced knowledgeable staff and excellent products at these neighborhood nurseries near me: Mother Earth Gardens at 38th St. and 42nd Ave., Southside Farm Store at Bloomington and 35th St., and Minnehaha Nursery at Minnehaha and 45th St. Seeds are available at Target and Walgreens and plants and seeds at Cub, which will be a bit cheaper in both senses. But something is better than nothing, and what you grow will be healthier and tastier than the grocery store produce.

Fourth, you will need tools. Get or borrow a shovel or spade (shovels have round blades and are better for moving dirt, spades have flat blades and are better for digging holes and turning over dirt). Buy a little hand shovel. Get a gentle watering head for your hose, so you don’t flush away your seeds and baby plants. Cheap tools won’t last as long as expensive ones, but will get you started.

Fifth, a few helpful tips. The simplest way to start a garden is to turn over the surface grass or dirt with a spade to a depth of about 8 inches— the depth of a spade. (Pay attention to future columns on improving your soil with compost.) Don’t start too big, or you are likely to get discouraged on your first hot summer day of weeding. Read the back of the seed packet and don’t plant too close. (I need this reminder every single year.) Water daily for the first week. Once seeds have sprouted, you encourage deeper roots and greater hardiness by watering deeply every few days rather than sprinkling lightly every day. Try to water early in the morning and avoid watering just before sunset, so you don’t create disease conditions for your plants. Check on moisture by poking a 3-inch hole and taking a look.

Sixth, ask for help. One source is the Master Gardener program of the University of Minnesota, which has lots of online resources at as well as a telephone hotline at 952-443-1426. Call and leave a message and a trained and experienced gardener will call you back with the information you need.

Last, ignore every single thing I wrote, if anything stops you from gardening. If you can only water after dark, water after dark. If your only space is shady, garden there and see what happens. Whatever you do will take you to the next step, and the mistakes will help you learn. Even if you never eat a leaf of garden lettuce or munch on your own crunchy bell pepper, nothing bad will happen. You will have spent some quality time outside looking at green growing things. And if all goes well, you ‘ll end up with delicious ultra-fresh veggies and the extra satisfaction that comes with growing them yourself!

So here’s the calendar for the month:

May 11 (9 a.m. to 8 p.m.), May 12 (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.), and May 13 (Noon to 4 p.m.). Entry Free and Plants Reasonable $$. “Friends School Plant Sale,” State Fairgrounds, 1265 Snelling Ave., St. Paul. 651-621-8930.

May 14, 6:30 to 8 p.m. $5, RSVP required. “Growing vegetables,” Urban Gardener Training Program at Mississippi Market, 1500 W. 7th St., St. Paul. 651-690-0507.

May 16, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. $15. “Container gardening,” Roosevelt High, 4028 28th Ave. S., Mpls. 612-668-4828.

May 17, 6 to 8 p.m. Free but RSVP required. “Growing herbs in Minnesota,” Pierre Bottineau Library, 55 Broadway St. N.E., Mpls. 612-543-6850.

May 18, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. $15. “Growing and cooking with herbs,” Roosevelt High, 4028 28th Ave. S., Mpls. 612-668-4828.

May 19, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Free. “Pruning trees and shrubs,” Edina Library, 5280 Grandview Square, Edina. 612-543-6325.

May 19, 6:30 to 8 p.m. $15. “Patio potted herbs,” Edison High, 700 22nd Ave. N.E., Mpls. 612-668-1108.

June 4, 6:30 to 8 p.m. $5, RSVP required. “Gardening in small spaces,” Urban Gardener Training Program at Mississippi Market, 1500 W. 7th St., St. Paul. 651-690-0507.

June 7, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Free but RSVP required. “Small space vegetable gardens,” Linden Hills Library, 2900 W. 43rd St., Mpls. 612-543-6825.

June 11 to Aug. 20 (except July 2); Monday evenings, 6 to 8 p.m. $120. “Ten-week Organic Farm School with the Women’s Environmental Institute,” Midtown Global Market’s Greenway Conference Room, 920 E. Lake St. 651-583-0705.

June 13, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Free. “Growing berries in Minnesota, “Rockford Road Library, 6401 42nd Ave. N., Crystal. 612-543-5875.

June 16, 2 to 4 p.m. Free. “Edible landscapes,” Sumner Library, 611 Van White Memorial Blvd., Mpls. 612-543-6875.

June 18, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Free but RSVP required. “Growing herbs in Minnesota,” Brooklyn Park Library, 8600 Zane Ave., Brooklyn Park. 612-543-6225.

June 18, 6:30 to 8 p.m. $5, RSVP required. “Dealing with pests, bugs and weeds,” Urban Gardener Training Program at Mississippi Market, 1500 W. 7th St., St. Paul. 651-690-0507. www.msmarket.-coop/events/