Starting A Vegetable Garden
Getting started with vegetables is a great way to improve your diet, feel more connected to the food we eat and enjoy an experience that can transform your life.
Starting a vegetable garden requires planning, preparation and time. But the rewards of eating homegrown produce are well worth the effort.
MINOT, N.D. – Beagle Hill Organic Farm, a four-acre farm outside Minot, started off as a home garden for Paul and Cheryl Lepp. While Cheryl raised the flower garden, Paul grew and stored the family vegetables – even before he retired.
“I didn’t grow up on a farm, but my parents always had a pretty large garden, and I remember being forced to pick weeds as a kid,” he said. “I hated it as a kid, but then you get older and realize what kind of treat it is to get outside and grow things.”
While a faculty member at Minot State University in the biology department for 15 years and chair of the department for a few years, Paul grew a garden during his summers off.
Last spring, Paul retired and was able to devote a lot more time to no-till organic gardening.
What happened to him often happens to many home gardeners who are excited to try and grow different varieties and colors of vegetables, fruits, and ornamentals.
The family ended up with way more vegetables than they planned on growing and way more than they could store for the fall and winter to eat later.
“We didn’t realize we had way more stuff than we could consume,” he said.
The Lepps considered selling vegetables at the Minot farmers’ market – and Paul, as a microbiologist, wanted to start off with a plan for the garden and write everything down – just as he had learned at graduate school. That way, he could add to the garden every year and follow his plan for growing and marketing.
“I always had some sort of idea of what I wanted to grow and how I wanted to grow it, and I learned in graduate school to always have a plan and write everything down,” he said. “At the beginning of the season and at the end of every season, I’ll go back and sort of review those notes.”
He also received a lot of ideas about a vegetable market farm, from FARRMS, a North Dakota organization that helps small farmers with farm financing, support, knowledge and more.
Paul felt if he could grow one vegetable that people wanted to buy and was a success at it, then he would grow another item the next year. He wanted to make sure that one veggie was delicious enough and in demand that it would sell out when he brought it to the market.
“I decided, ‘Well, if I’m going to do the market gardening thing and sell at the farmers’ market, I was going to go in with a plan and concentrate on one thing and do that one thing really well,” he said. “I started with salad greens because all the books and YouTube videos that I watched said that was the most profitable crop.”
Paul didn’t start building a no-till garden at first. He noticed there were a lot of weeds, especially bindweed, and thought he could eliminate it with tilling.
“When we first got here to this property where I’m at now, I hadn’t really explored the no-till. I tilled up one end of the garden and tilled through all that bindweed, and turned those 100 bindweed weeds into 10,000 bindweed weeds,” he said.
Paul realized that tilling the soil wasn’t the best option for keeping down weeds.
“I knew I was a real gardener when I could recognize bindweed just from the roots,” he said.
After researching, Paul decided to go all no-till, and found it solved the weed problem, as well as kept the soil a lot healthier.
“We started an organic no-till garden, and I would recommend to new gardeners to also consider starting a no-till garden,” he said.
To build his no-till garden, Paul put down a thick layer of cardboard. Then he placed about 6 inches of compost on top of that.
People are also reading…
“Putting the cardboard over and then the compost on top is really the way to beat the bindweed,” he said.
The Lepps grew different types of lettuce, spinach, arugula and other greens for a salad mix.
“We grow about four types of lettuce and make a salad mix,” he said.
All growing seasons have not been the same, but Paul learns as he goes. And with everything written down, he gets better every year.
“Every farmer will tell you – every gardener will tell you – every year is different,” he said. “But when, on the whole, you have more successes than failures, that’s a pretty good year. But weather changes, so there’s always too much water, or not enough water, or some new pest or something that you’re always sort of dealing with.”
The interesting part of gardening is “dealing with those challenges.”
“Sometimes you’re successful; sometimes you’re not, but you sort of build up a bag of tricks as you go along,” he said.
Paul always grows vegetables his family likes, but he doesn’t sell those. He will grow kale, chard, cantaloupe and potatoes for the family.
“I’ll grow a hundred pounds worth of onions and just put them in burlap sacks in the basement and also store the potatoes,” he said.
The first year that he sold at the farmers’ market, he brought only a salad mix. He had grown four different types of lettuce with different color and textures for the salad mix. People liked it and it sold very well that first year.
“I started with a salad mix, and the idea was, eventually, I wanted it to be that you could come to my stand and get everything you needed for a salad,” he said. “I would make the salad mix the first year, and then get really good with radishes the next year. After that, spring onions or bunching onions and then tomatoes. I just added something new every year.”
Paul is already planning to start his gardening this month in March.
“Right now, in our sunroom on my windowsill, I have spinach, lettuces, cilantro and radishes started,” he said. “In two or three weeks, they will go out in the high tunnel.”
He really enjoys his high tunnel, which he finished building two years ago.
“In early spring, plants go out to the high tunnel. In late spring/early summer, we will be building additional no-till beds, planting fruit and nut trees, creating swales, and planting out crops. The remainder of the season is given over to harvesting, weeding, watering and composting,” he said.
Paul advertises his market goods on Facebook. Along with a photo, he posts that he will sell, “garden-fresh, local, organic salad mix and spinach. A washed and ready to eat six-ounce salad mix contains four kinds of leaf lettuce. The bag of Spicy Salad Mix also contains arugula.”
Last year, Paul had grown Kohlrabi for the family, and took the rest to his table at the farmers’ market.
“I couldn’t keep it on the table. It kept selling out,” he said.
Today, the Lepps also raise chickens and bees at their Beagle Hill Organic Farm. They still grow vegetables for the family and the farmers’ market.
They are searching for an intern to help with the market garden this summer. FARRMS (www.farrms.org) offers a paid internship at Beagle Hill Organic Farm. They also have an intern posting on the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms site, and that one is room and board only.