I have a confession to make. The last time I planted a vegetable garden, I was 10 years old. It was a little patch of lettuce on a bare spot in our suburban lawn.
Before that little backyard experiment, you probably have to go back 3 or 4 generations to find a farmer in my family. Maybe that explains why gardening isn’t something that comes ‘naturally’ to me.
Lately, something‘s been tugging on me to get my hands dirty and plant some herbs. So I called on my friend Chelsea Taxman for a little practical advice. Chelsea is the Education Director for Truck Farm, an urban agriculture education program in Omaha. Here’s a little peek into our conversation:
Mo: I’m thinking about planting a vegetable or herb garden. How many plants should I start in my first year?
Chelsea: Mo, the amount of plants you grow depends on how ambitious you are in the first year. If your schedule is busy, start small. Work with something you can check in on every day. There are salad green varieties available on the market that can be planted from seed and harvested within 20-40 days. Quick crops like lettuces, arugula or radishes provide instant gratification. Success with a few plants will help you feel more confident to try more the next year.
Mo: Are there certain plants that are especially easy for first-time gardeners to grow in our Nebraska climate?
Chelsea: Perennial plants (meaning they die back in the winter and come back up in the spring) are recommended for first-time and even old-time gardeners. Perennial plants and herbs need less attention and less water each year, but you still reap the benefits of their beauty and fragrance, and you’re creating habitat for the wild.
I recommend herbs in the Lamiaceae (mint) family if you have space. These plants smell and taste delicious, their flowers attract pollinators, but they do spread throughout the garden if not controlled. I personally like when they spread in between my other plants, but my garden isn’t the most tamed.
– Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis); especially good as a tea to calm nervous tension, promote restful sleep and relieve mild seasonal affective depression
– Catnip (Nepeta cataria); fussy babies and adults feel relief with catnip tea
– Mint (Mentha species); summertime is great for this cool, digestive herb that tastes sweet and mildly spicy
– Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium); avoid internal use without some herb knowledge, but it’s a great ground cover
First time vegetables that are “easy” include radishes, spring greens, lettuces, beans, spinach and other cooler season crops. First-timers might want to stay away from midsummer plants that need a lot of attention, a lot of heat and even more water. This includes melons, corn, tomatoes and peppers, to name a few.
Mo: Is it ok to start with seeds outside? And what’s the best time to plant my seeds?
Chelsea: This again depends on the crops you want to plant. Yes, you can start root crops like carrots, radishes and beets in the spring when the soil is thawed. Also, lettuces, salad greens, arugula and spinach can all go straight in the ground as seed. Most seeds can start outside except longer season crops that need more attention and heat like tomatoes and peppers. Most people start these ahead of time as well as some herbs, kale and Brussels sprouts. There are just so many options, Mo!
Mo: Can you explain a simple, 3 or 4-step process for preparing the ground for planting?
Chelsea: I am still a young gardener, but this is my process the past few years. I start preparing my beds in the fall by layering fallen leaves and compost (grass clippings, coffee grounds, etc.) all over the area of my future garden site. This can be referred to as Sheet Mulching. Then the material will sit all winter long under the snow and decompose adding more life to the soil.
In the spring when the ground is thawed enough to dig, I turn the leaves and compost under the top layer of soil. Some people call this Double Digging. I use hand tools and elbow grease instead of machinery like a tiller. This year I will be adding more cover crops to my garden in the fall and spring like Buckwheat. A cover crop will cover the soil that I’m not currently cultivating and keep the top soil from blowing away in the wind. Cover crops can also add nutrition like nitrogen into the ground when I turn it under.
Mo: For gardeners who have limited yard space, what herbs or vegetables are easy to grow in pots?
Chelsea: There is often the option to join a neighborhood garden or community garden for more space and support your first year. I have heard of neighbors sharing their backyard and space, too. As far as pots go, there are many plants that can be grown in pots. Herbs and flowers are generally easiest. I wouldn’t start these from seed, but I would support a local grower and purchase plant starts. You can find local growers at Farmer’s Markets in Omaha and sometimes during garage sales. Nursery plants are locally owned, but sometimes they tend to use more harmful chemicals than a local organic grower.
I know many people who have success with tomatoes and peppers in pots. The most important thing is space. Make sure your pot is large enough for the root systems. There is even a corn variety called Blue Jade that can be grown in a pot! (seedsavers.org) I wouldn’t recommend root vegetables, but you can always try.
Mo: Where can I look for help if I have a bug problem or general questions about how to water, fertilize, grow or harvest my plants?
Chelsea: I recommend you contact the Master Gardeners in Omaha. You can reach these experts through the Douglas Country Extension. The Common Soil Seed Library (inside the Omaha Public Library’s Benson Branch) offers ongoing free classes about seed starting, germination, seed saving and more. The listings are online at the OPL website.
Mo: What if my garden grows like crazy and I have baskets of extra food or herbs?
Chelsea: There are many places that accept donations or might even purchase your extra production. Or get to know your neighbors, let them know what you’re doing in your yard and share the abundance. You can share your surplus online through websites like Small Potatoes, NextDoor, Facebook, etc.
Table Grace Café at 16th and Farnam Streets is a donation-based restaurant that sources locally grown food. The owner and chef, Matt Weber, will happily take your donations. Call ahead or stop by.
A native of Omaha, aspiring herbalist, permaculturist and home gardener, Chelsea travels to Omaha Public Schools offering education to youth about where our food comes from today. Chelsea incorporates lessons of healthy eating, movement and sustainability into the Truck Farm curriculum. She is a Registered Yoga Teacher and co-founder of Black Iris Botanicals, a wild-crafted and locally-sourced herbal beauty product line.