8 Gardening Questions with Arick Andersen, Horticulture Iowa
Shortly after moving into our home nine years ago, we built four garden plots. Each is 4'x4', with a path between that measures thirty-six inches. The first few years, I planted tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, kale, and Brussels sprouts. I had high hopes, every year. At least until July, when weeds would grow several inches overnight and the days were so hot and humid you felt like you couldn't breathe.
Then we adopted our second dog, Winnie. She had/has no concept of boundaries and eats anything in the yard that is edible (including the hostas). She's also a great teacher, and our older dog Amber took to walking into the house with whole cucumbers.
Continuing the garden felt just too damn hard and time consuming. Or maybe I was looking for an excuse. Maybe gardening is something my ideal self does, not the real me.
The last three years, the garden plots have filled up with weeds that have to be mowed over. It's come time to decide if they should be removed and grass seed laid. Or get serious.
Or maybe, I don't have to be so all in. Maybe, I can work in just two plots this year. In fact, that's just what I plan to do. Plant in two plots while I work on improving the soil condition in the other two.
Before I begin creating my planting plans, I turned to my friend Arick Andersen for some advice. Arick has THE greenest thumb I have ever seen, and I've learned so much just by walking his garden.
Arick got his start in gardening at 3 yearsold when his mom plopped him in front of a 4x4 square of dirt with a pack of nasturtium seeds. He's been hooked ever since. He has planned and planted everything from the half acre family garden to a garden on a porch roof, patio gardens, landscape gardens, backyard gardens and indoor gardens in soil and hydroponics. Arick runs a small garden center, Horticulture Iowa, out of his home in Urbandale during the month of May.
If you are looking to start your own garden this year, below is some advice Arick shared with me.
Tell me about your garden.
I have 3 main garden areas. The first is the one we started within the month that we moved into our house (February 3 years ago). We decided to cut out 6 strip beds 2’ wide and 30-50’ long at an angle that cuts through the back corner of our house - an area with good sun (south exposure) and reasonable protection (away from public areas).
Within these 6 rows, there is a permanent area for raspberries, a strawberry row, an area for perennial testing (good clearance deals that might not make it!), and a 7 year rotating main garden: tomatoes, cucurbits, beans/peas, herbs/roots, and FLOWERS!!! All of these rows have simple 7’ structural support for vertical gardening.
The second garden area is 3 sections of the landscaping on the west and south sides of the house where we work in flowers, tomatoes/peppers, and cucurbits on a 3 year rotation and again with vertical support available.
The final garden area is new last year. We cut 7 formal beds in out east lawn, facing a sidewalk and side street. These are traditional 4’ wide beds managed with square foot gardening techniques and minimal vertical support. All of those beds are fronted by flowers toward the street and then the rest of the bed area is in a 3 year rotation again - flowers, cucurbits, and peppers/tomatoes(dwarf varieties).
Much of our rotation scheme is designed to allow us to plant 150 or so tomato vines every year without planting them in the same spot more than once every 3 years. And - the squash/melons/pumpkins etc. (cucurbits) just take up lots of room if you want to grow much variety.
What are you most excited about for the 2018 growing season?
We’re testing/selling about 20 micro-dwarf tomatoes this year - varieties that grow only 6-16” tall and make generally cherry-sized tomatoes. I’m growing begonias and moss roses from seed for the first time this year, along with several less well-known ornamentals, which is always exciting for me. What else… “Sugar Rush Peach” hot pepper, “Yellow Wonder” alpine strawberry, and melons! “Kaho” and “Gold in Gold” watermelons. We plant 300-400 varieties on our ¼ acre lot every year. I’m excited about all of them!
What three things does a new gardener need to do to prepare for the growing season?
1. Learn a bit about the stuff you want to grow. Five minutes on the internet will give you a mental overview of what you should expect and keep you from planting a pumpkin seed someplace where you’ll end up with a pumpkin in your tree. (That’s not a random example. I’ve heard of it twice!)
2. Figure out where your light is. The easiest way to mess up a garden is by not understanding what full sun means (and the fact that almost all garden plants require it!) We bought our house with specific requirements for garden areas, but chances are you didn’t! 6 pots on a sunny driveway can get you more produce than 6 beds under a shady oak.
3. Expect mixed success… some plants are just dying to succeed no matter how inept you are and others might take a pass and wait for you to tune your skills. It’s ok! Keep trying. Seeing what grows is always the point!
What are the best veggies to start with if you are new to gardening?
Radishes. They’re so fast. You can plant them early and sometimes eat them in less than a month. Nothing like it.
What is the most underappreciated vegetable?
Radishes. No - just kidding (but have you had them with butter?? It’s a thing. Look it up!)
Today, I’m going to say sweet long red Italian peppers… they’re about the size of a twisted up fountain pen. Red bell peppers get all the attention, but you will be waiting SO. LONG. for them. The little thin sweet reds taste just as good… probably better, and I’m sure they would be fantastic in a salad if I could ever get them inside without eating them. We grew “Sigaretta de Bergamo” last year and will also try “Jimmy Nardello” this year. I think you’re actually supposed to fry them, but considering I couldn’t even get them into a salad last year, you’re gonna have to wait a while for a report on that.
What is the biggest obstacle to a successful veggie garden and how can I overcome it?
I’m not in love with this answer, but I think people are usually their own biggest obstacle. Thinking “I don’t have time” or “I don’t know what I’m doing” or “my only sunny spot is the deck, or the driveway or this chunk of lawn that I can’t imagine digging up…” or “I have a black thumb!.” Pretty much all of these problems can be solved by putting a seed in the dirt. Ok - to beef up the odds a bit, let’s say you put 10 seeds in at least… perhaps radishes. Plant them now.
What is your favorite gardening hack?
I grew 12 watermelons in 2’x8’ strip 2 years ago - just by giving the vines some vertical space to ramble in (and planting shorter-vined varieties.) I recommend starting with 7’ u-posts (under $5 each) and building something off of them that works for you.
Where do you get your gardening inspiration?
I love a good garden catalog; I could happily make a full time job of scouring every seed website on the internet. Some of the best visual imagery and descriptive prose can be found at rareseeds.com. If they can’t get your garden imagination flowing, pick another hobby!