FARGO, N.D. — As grocery store shelves have had occasional empty spots, more people have started looking for the security of producing some of their own food.

“It’s absolutely amazing to see the new demand for information,” says Esther McGinnis, North Dakota State University Extension horticulturist. “We’ve got people that have never gardened before that want to try it this year.”

McGinnis has some advice for first-time gardeners.

“Well, don’t overdo it. Start small,” she says. “You may want to start in some containers, you know, try and grow some tomatoes in a container, pepper plants, maybe some herbs to go with that.”

By starting small, new gardeners can better focus their efforts and can challenge themselves more as they learn, McGinnis says. She says raised beds can be a good place to start.

Raised garden beds can be a good place to start with gardening. (Esther McGinnis, Special to Agweek)
Raised garden beds can be a good place to start with gardening. (Esther McGinnis, Special to Agweek)
“The advantages of a raised garden bed is that you can build it up so you don’t have to bend over,” she explains.

And the time is now to start planning gardens. Leaf lettuces, for instance, are cool-weather plants that can be grown in early spring.

“The nice thing with leaf lettuces is that you don’t have to wait until a full head develops,” she says. “You can actually harvest individual leaves as you need them, and that plant will continue to grow.”

Be part of the Victory Garden movement by growing more than you need and donating some to food pantries. (Esther McGinnis, Special to Agweek)
Be part of the Victory Garden movement by growing more than you need and donating some to food pantries. (Esther McGinnis, Special to Agweek)
Radishes are another good early option.

“The kids absolutely love radishes, and they’re really easy to grow,” McGinnis says.

When soil temperature reaches 45 degrees, McGinnis says potatoes can go into the ground. On the other end of the spectrum, wait to plant tomatoes until the nighttime temperature is in the 50s, probably around Memorial Day.

Victory gardens

While growing for oneself is important, McGinnis says interest in so-called “Victory Gardens” also is rising. During the World Wars, people planted Victory Gardens to help sustain themselves during food shortages but also to help feed their communities. Such gardens took over yards and public places and were considered a way to support the war effort.

Gardening can not only help provide food but also can provide psychological benefits. (Esther McGinnis, Special to Agweek)
Gardening can not only help provide food but also can provide psychological benefits. (Esther McGinnis, Special to Agweek)
In the same way, McGinnis asks that people consider planting some extra rows of vegetables and donating what they don’t need to their local food pantries to support people who have been adversely affected by the pandemic.

“We are seeing this huge demand for food from the food pantries, and they really don’t have huge amounts of fresh produce donated to them,” she says. “So we want to fill the void and help others less fortunate who may be unemployed or food insecure.”

NDSU Extension has resources for gardeners of all stages at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/extension/lawns_gardens_trees. The resource includes how-to videos on gardening tasks, reports on varieties, tips on growing various plants, the latest of the new Dakota Gardener column and more.

And while there is a large focus on growing things that can be eaten, McGinnis says raising more ornamental plants also can be healthy.

Esther McGinnis started a career as a lawyer for 10 years but her passion for growing things led her to switch to horticulture. (Trevor Peterson / Agweek)
Esther McGinnis started a career as a lawyer for 10 years but her passion for growing things led her to switch to horticulture. (Trevor Peterson / Agweek)
For McGinnis, horticulture had been a passion, even before it was her job. McGinnis spent 10 years as a lawyer but found herself studying and thinking about horticulture between court appearances and decided to make a switch. She earned a doctorate in applied plant sciences and has been at NDSU for seven years.

While gardening can help feed the body, McGinnis says there is an aspect of “feeding the soul” that is important to not overlook.

“Our blood pressure goes down,” she says. “There have been studies showing we benefit from being in close proximity to plants.”

How-to guides:

The NDSU Extension Lawns, Gardens & Trees website offers some easy-to-follow video guides on gardening tasks. Here is a snapshot of what you can learn there:

  • Seed potato preparation: McLean County Extension Agent Calla Edwards explains how you care for seed potatoes before planting. Buying certified seed potatoes is an important first step, rather than using potatoes sold in the store intended for consumption. The seed potatoes will be more productive and less likely to have diseases. When cutting up seed potatoes, keep at least two eyes in a section, and make sure each section is roughly the size of a golf ball. For every 100 feet of row, you need approximately 15 pounds of potatoes.

  • Starting seeds successfully — Lighting: Edwards says temperature and lighting are the most important aspects for starting seedlings. She gives some ways to control lighting.

  • Making seed tape: McGinnis demonstrates how to make carrot seed tape out of toilet paper to make the process of planting carrots easier. She suggests working in 3 to 4 foot lengths and marking the seed spacing with markers. She gives instructions for making a non-toxic glue to hold the seeds to the tape, how to fold and store the tape, and how to plant it.

  • How to thin seedlings: Carrie Knutson, NDSU extension horticulturist in Grand Forks County, explains how to thin seedlings. Thinning is important to ensure the health of plants and to make sure plants are overcrowded. She says the easiest way to thin is with scissors, but she also explains how to separate seedlings and transplant them.

  • Start your own transplants: Edwards explains how to start seeds. She says it’s relatively easy and can be done in a variety of ways. Planting outside too early, particularly in the Northern Plains’ unpredictable climate, can be one often-made mistake. Seeds can be started inside weeks before outside planting, though. Use potting soil or seed starting mix when starting seeds. That’s important for avoiding weeds and diseases and for keeping soil loose. Don’t let the plants get dry, particularly if they are in the house. Make sure seeds are started in warm areas; heat maps can help. Make sure seedlings have a lot of light. If they don’t have enough light, they will stretch and lean to get to the light. Edwards also offers tips in getting plants ready to be moved outside, best practices in planting outside and more.