Gardening in St. Louis: Ten Tips for Beginners

August 18, 2015

Matthew Brown, MPH, is the manager of the Center for Dissemination & Implementation and Center for Community Health Partnerships; he also cultivates a large garden in St. Louis

This month the blog is focused on food. See below for 10 tips from our resident gardening expert on growing your own healthy vegetables in St. Louis.

1. Choose Your site

For your first garden, smaller is better. A four by four square is a good size. A few large containers can be a good option too if you don’t have an in-ground option. Select a sunny, fairly level spot that gets at least 8 hours of direct sun.

2. Test Your Soil

The Missouri Extension is your best option in St. Louis. You can drop off the sample at the Missouri Botanical Garden or any Extension office. The regular soil analysis will give you most anything you need unless you’re worried about heavy metal or something specific.

3. Prepare the Space

Kill the sod by tiller, plastic, paper, or cutting with a sharp spade, but get rid of it. Consider using a weed barrier cloth to keep the grass rhizomes from growing back into your garden.

Next, put up a fence. A vegetable garden most anywhere on the planet will at least need a fence to keep rabbits out. A three foot tall 1” chickenwire fence staked to the ground or dug into the ground will keep these pesky critters out. Depending on where you are, you may need other measures. I recently had to add an electric fence to keep deer at bay. The most affordable “peanut butter” fence has worked like a charm so far. If you have vole issues, burying the fence 6-12” into the ground can be very helpful. Remember to leave space on the inside of the fence to walk, till, cultivate etc. You don’t want it right against the garden.

4. Check Soil for Moisture

Check garden soil for moisture—workable soil will be moist enough to hold together in a 1” diameter ball, but dry enough to crumble apart when pinched. If it just squishes, it’s too wet, wait for it to dry out.  If it won’t form into a ball, water it well, wait a day or two, and then test it again. Till (or dig in) well, adding any amendments called for by your soil test results.

5. Choose Your Crops

Think about what you’ll actually eat, and also what you might like to try. Below I’ve listed a few of my favorites:

  • Tomatoes – Baby or sauce or slicing, sweet or umami, hybrid or heirloom, there are so many options. Hybrids often have disease resistances, but aren’t as flavorful as many heirlooms. I’m particularly partial to Black Krim, Brandywine Suddoth, Brazilian Beauty, and Evergreen.
  • Sweet potatoes – The common Beauregard is truly excellent.
  • Eggplant – Pin Tung Long, Aswad
  • Edamame – I enjoy Shirofumi
  • Peas – Sugar Snaps
  • Arugula – Traditional and Apollo
  • Potatoes – Kennebec, Adriondac Red, Mountain Purple, Purple Viking, La Ratte Fingerling, German Butterball, Yukon Gold, Kerr’s Pink
  • Lettuce – leaf varieties are easy and productive, consider Red Sails and Black Seeded Simpson
  • Carrots – I’ve actually done a comparison of 12 kinds locally, and my first choice is the common Danver’s Half Long (which is also fabulous for our heavy clay soil), followed by Cosmic Purple.
  • Broccoli – Imperial (Spring) and Marathon (Fall)
  • Summer Squash – Grey Zucchini is flavorful and slightly more pest resistant, Zucchinetto Rampicante is also quite tasty and useful in St. Louis for its sprawling growth habit (and C. Moschata membership) that makes it resistant to squash vine borer.
  • Winter Squash – Butterbush, Metro Butternut, or Mrs. Amerson’s, Greek Sweet Red, Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck
  • Sweet Peppers –Red Mushroom, Black Hungarian, Aji Dulce, Jimmy Nardello, Chocolate Bell, Radzuca, Topeppo Rosso


6. Notes on Planting

  • Timing: Consult a planting calendar (Missouri Extension Planting Calendar .pdf) to determine the timing of planting in your area.
  • Spacing: Pay close attention to the spacing and depth recommended on the seed packet. It’s worth noting spacings are always rough as they vary with place, climate, and varietal.
  • Watering: Keep soil uniformly moist during germination. This typically isn’t too difficult in St. Louis during spring and summer planting, but plantings for fall tend to require careful attention to this detail. Watering gently twice a day, ideally with a light row cover to help trap moisture, can really help.

7. Don’t Overwater

Generally you’ll need about an inch of rain a week. Get a rain gauge (or use an old tuna can to monitor for rain) and supplement when you’re not getting that. A drip hose or drip system allows you to deliver water to the soil beneath plants, which helps minimize fungal problems, but an oscillating sprinkler is cheap and very useful for germinating seeds.

8. Keep Up With Weeding

This doesn’t need to be perfect, but weeds do take sun and water from your crops, will stunt their growth and reduce your yields. At the very least, try to get the weeds out before they set seed in your garden and make the situation more challenging next year. Consider using mulch to help trap moisture and minimize weed growth. If you want to use plastic sheet mulch you’ll need a watering system.

9. Harvesting

Pay attention to harvesting guidelines, and use your own experience to fine tune. Most produce is ideal for harvesting during a specific period of time, and isn’t as good if harvested too soon or too late. This sounds challenging, but becomes easy with practice.

10. Don’t panic!

If something doesn’t seem right, stop. Take pictures. Ask advice from a trusted gardener, a reputable garden center, or a horticulturist. Better yet ask many people in each of the categories. You’ll get a lot of different answers and guesses, but with time you’ll narrow in on a reasonable guess of what’s going on. The garden is a significant microcosm of real life; there’s always something more to learn (and almost always something more to do).

Recommended Hand Tools

  1. Small hand shovel
  2. Full size shovel
  3. Rake
  4. Well-sharpened hoe on a long handle
  5. Well-sharpened hand hoe (I really like my Nejiri Gama Hoe)
  6. Soil miller (made by Wolf Garten) for hand tilling of reasonably weeded ground
  7. Knife (if pocket knife, make sure it locks into the open position) for harvesting
  8. Pruners for harvesting
  9. Bucket


Further Reading

These tips are a good start, but no substitute for a good garden mentor and/or a good intro to gardening book such as Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew or How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons.

foodThis post is part of the August 2015 “Food” series of the Institute for Public Health’s blog. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter and Facebook to receive notifications about our latest blog posts.

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