How will your garden grow?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 17, 2003

If spring fever has you scanning the yellow pages for psychiatric help, try getting in contact with Mother Nature instead.

"Gardening is about the cheapest therapy money can buy," said Terry Arens, owner of The Garden Center.

The last frost of the year is usually mid-May, which makes it prime time for starting a garden. Nurseries and garden centers across the area offer a large variety of plants and as much advice as a person wants to help ease any novice's fears.

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Randy Berg, owner of Berg's Nursery, said gardening can be a learning process, and there is no harm in starting with no experience as long as you are willing to ask questions and find out the proper way to do things.

"It's very easy to garden, it really is," Berg said. "Each season you do it, you learn a little more."

The first thing you want to do is figure out what sort of garden you want to have.

There are a lot more options than just flowers or vegetables. Butterfly gardens, fragrant gardens, herb gardens and a wide range of different vegetables are just some of the many options available. There are a number of books or resources on the Internet to help you decide, but if you want the personal attention, people at garden centers can work with you to choose your variety.

A warning, however: Be careful not to take on too big a project right away.

"Many people will take out a big chunk of ground and overwhelm themselves with it," Berg said.

He recommends starting small. A plot no bigger than about 10 feet by 12 feet is plenty for a beginner to get a good feel for the craft, he said.

The style of garden is up to you, and even the experts tend to disagree about what is best for beginners. Doing a little research and asking questions will give you a good idea how much work will go into a particular garden.

One important aspect that some people do not take seriously enough is soil treatment.

The pH level, or the level of acidity, in your soil will affect a plant's ability to take up nutrients or fertilizer.

There are kits available in stores to test soil pH, but you can simply fill a paper cup with a soil sample and bring it into a store for analysis. If the pH is high, you need to add sulfur; if the pH is low, lime is needed.

Berg said many people mistreat their soil because they do not understand what sulfur and lime do to it. For example, if one year, someone's soil pH is low and they add lime, they will see great results in their garden. However, if they continue to add lime year after year, the pH level will become so high that nothing can grow.

Bottom line: Don't do anything with chemicals unless you know you are supposed to.

You might not have to do anything around here. This area is apparently blessed with good soil.

"We're in farm country, so even if you live in town, you often have good soil," Berg said.

Over-watering is another problem beginners have. The symptoms of over-watering and under-watering are the same, so many people flood already-drowning plants in an attempt to heal them.

"Folks kind of tend to kill their plants with kindness," Arens said.

"You've got to let them wilt just a little before you water them," Berg said. "That's not going to hurt them. Too much water is non-reversible because it rots the roots."

Insects and disease are very preventable problems if you keep an eye on your garden. Simply clip off a leaf with damage and bring it in to a garden professional for advice on treatment.

A lot goes into gardening, but it is not as tough as it seems. After all, people have been gardening since before recorded time.

"I think it goes back to the roots of society in general," Arens said. "It's inherent. There's no one that doesn't like the smell of a fresh-cut lawn."

Flowers are a little friendlier for beginners

Flowers are in.

"Flower gardens are much more popular than vegetable gardens," Randy Berg, owner of Berg's Nursery said. "Years ago, the vegetable garden was kind of a mainstay."

But more often today, gardens are used to give a house some style, to dress it up a little bit.

And for gardening rookies, a flower garden can offer a little more space to make mistakes.

First, however, you have to know the difference between the two main groups of garden flowers, annuals and perennials.

Annuals live for one season and the next year must be replanted, whereas perennials will last a few years, but with a limited amount of time in bloom.

Annuals seem to be the safer variety for the inexperienced.

They take a little less maintenance work, and a lot less planning.

"Annuals give you a lot longer season of color," Berg said.

Perennials, with their short period in bloom, require more preparation time.

"You don't want a perennial garden full of spring-blooming plants because then you have nothing for summer and fall," Sarah Arens, at The Garden Center, said.

Make sure, if you buy seeds, the plants are suitable for Minnesota weather. Some stores have seeds for tropical zones, which have a lot of trouble growing here. Southern Minnesota is in zone four, and many seed packages will tell you what zone the plant is best suited for.

When you set up your garden, think about what it is going to look like once all the plants have grown to maturity and do not plant them too close together.

In the past, geometric patterns were popular, but today, more people are going with a random approach.

"I think it looks more appealing, softer to plant in odd numbers," Arens said.

Ultimately, though, go with what you think looks good.

The taste lures vegetable growers

The taste of home-grown vegetables is worth all the work, grandmothers and garden center employees insist.

But for beginners, it can be a challenge.

The vegetable garden requires more attention throughout the season, and the timing for planting can be a little more difficult, so some should say steer clear.

However, the plants grow quickly, and with tangible results -- potatoes in hand -- it can fire up the enthusiasm to continue the hobby, Terry Arens of The Garden Center said.

Arens said it is very rewarding for beginners to see their plants go "from the earth to the table."

Choosing the location is a key to a good vegetable garden Randy Berg, owner of Berg's Nursery, said. He said vegetables in general need to be planted in the sunniest place possible.

Many of them are very sensitive to changes in temperature, as well, so waiting until the last frost has thawed for things like tomatoes and onions is important.

If you want to start with a hardier plant, cauliflower, broccoli, peas and some other vegetables are better equipped for dealing with a tough climate and might be the way to go.

And the taste of something fresh out of the garden is something special, Berg said.

"Potatoes just taste completely different from what you get in the store," he said. "They're creamy. They're just excellent."

He said there is nothing like fresh sweet corn. The flavor begins to fade almost immediately, so the best taste is straight from the stalk to the pot.

If you like to cook, you can not hope for better ingredients than what is in your backyard.

Matt Merritt can be reached at 434-2214 or by e-mail at