Ask A Master Gardener – Tips for New Gardeners

World War I saw thousands of people begin planting war gardens.  In addition, the US government encouraged children to garden through the development of school gardens and the establishment of the Children’s War Garden Army. World War II saw similar growth in vegetable gardening with Victory Gardens which produced as much as 40% of the country’s fresh produce. With the Covid-19 pandemic, seed sales have been on the rise. What all these events have in common is an increase of both new gardeners and people who haven’t gardened for years. If you are one these new gardeners here are a few things to consider to prevent frustration and discouragement.

Keep it manageable. If you are new to gardening, a 10’X10’ plot will get you started.  Enlarging it to a 10’X20’ the following year will enable you to grow much of what a family of four will need for an entire season. The larger the garden the greater your time commitment. Do not assume you will be unemployed for the entire growing season. If you haven’t planted a garden in years don’t assume you can physically handle the same work load you previously did.

Plant only what you will eat. It is easy to get carried away by the pretty pictures in the seed catalog. Don’t plant a dozen broccoli plants if your family doesn’t eat broccoli.

Manage your expenses. Don’t invest in power tools or expensive raised beds. Start with a few simple tools; a spade, hoe, rake and trowel.  Look for used tools and add as you are able.

Vegetable plants require 8 hours of sun. If your landscape lacks that, consider a few containers before removing trees or shrubs.

Consider the history of your site. Did your spray your lawn with persistent herbicide last year? Were there any walnut or butternut trees on the site? Both conditions are likely to suppress the growth or completely kill your vegetables.

Prepare your site. When turning sod into a garden remove the grass and perennial weeds. If desired, use an herbicide such as glyphosate and turn the soil after three days. Alternately cover the area with an opaque tarp or several layers of cardboard for two or three weeks to smother the weeds and turf.

Don’t over fertilize. A soil test is always a good idea when beginning a garden. Sod turned into a garden is not likely to need additional nutrients for several years.

Start with crops that have fewer pests and don’t require special handling. Green and yellow beans, carrots, cucumbers, onions, snap peas, tomatoes and peppers are a good starting point. Sweet corn, melons and squash require significant space; cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower need protection from persistent insects; potatoes can be difficult to dig in some soils.

For science-based information check out The Learning Store from the University of Wisconsin Extension.  A simple search for ‘vegetable garden’ yields excellent publications covering selection, growing, pest control, harvesting and storage.  “Vegetable Cultivars and Planting Guide for Wisconsin Gardeners” has suggested planting dates for most garden crops and an average yield per foot of row.  Additional questions can be answered by sending an inquiry to

Welcome to vegetable gardening. Remember to involve the whole family, maybe even give a child responsibility for a section or a few plants. It is a great way to instill responsibility and build self-esteem.

John Schellinger

Certified Master Gardener


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