If you want to know how well things will grow in your ground, look up first, Kelly Kirkpatrick says.

“The first place you start with is the sun,” said Kirkpatrick, a master gardener. “Plants that produce food need a lot of sun.”

Kirkpatrick recommends finding a spot that gets at least six hours of uninterrupted sunlight.

Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick
Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick

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More people turned to gardening last year to grow food amid the pandemic and disruption to supply chains. So far, garden stores and seed suppliers say it looks like that interest is remaining high for 2021.

If this is your first year to garden, now is the time to start your seeds. The cost for seeds can be minimal to nothing. Seeds can be "checked out" at the Rochester Seed Library or saved from previous years.

“The process of starting seeds is definitely cheaper and more fun — especially if you have kids,” said Kristin Pearson, owner of Pearson Organics.

Seedlings start to sprout under a grow light at the home of Heidi Kass of the Urban Homesteaders of Southeast Minnesota on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Seedlings start to sprout under a grow light at the home of Heidi Kass of the Urban Homesteaders of Southeast Minnesota on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Like outdoors, light is the key to starting seeds indoors.

“They’re going to grow a lot sturdier and faster if they have good light,” Pearson said. “Getting them as much light as possible is important.”

A window likely won’t be enough, she added.

Heidi Kass, of the Urban Homesteaders of Southeast Minnesota, suggests a grow light if you’re starting seeds indoors.

“You can get a basic setup for around $50,” she said, adding that she gives her seedlings 12 to 15 hours of light per day.

Other than that, a simple tray with a transparent lid is enough to start seeds.

Heidi Kass of the Urban Homesteaders of Southeast Minnesota starts seeds at her home on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Heidi Kass of the Urban Homesteaders of Southeast Minnesota starts seeds at her home on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Now is the time to start indoor seeds — especially for peppers, carrot and tomatoes. Late-summer and fall harvest plants can wait a bit.

The time to buy your seeds, well, that might have been yesterday. Seed suppliers are having a hard time keeping up with demand.

Stores are selling quickly. The Rochester Seed Library has already run out of carrots, jalapeno peppers, and a few other selections.

Seedsavers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, which supplies the Rochester Seed Library with much of its supply, is not accepting any new orders as it works to fill orders already placed by their customers.

“We aren’t going to be purchasing any new seeds right now,” said Keri Ostby, head of Rochester Public Library’s technical services, who also helps coordinate the seed library. “It’s just too hard to get them.”

About 42% of the seed library’s stock has either been checked out or reserved, she added. People who have reserved seeds have about 10 days to pick them up before they’re put back into circulation.

Seedlings start to sprout under a grow light at the home of Heidi Kass of the Urban Homesteaders of Southeast Minnesota on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Seedlings start to sprout under a grow light at the home of Heidi Kass of the Urban Homesteaders of Southeast Minnesota on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

“If you have seeds on hold, come pick them up,” Ostby said. “Seeds are something I want to make sure to get into the hands of people who will use them.”

If you use starter plants, Pearson recommends buying them earlier in the year, before they’re root bound. However, most garden plants, such as peppers and tomatoes, are sensitive to cold soil and should be planted only after high temperatures have reached around 70 degrees consistently. Lettuces, kale, peas and other vegetables could go in the ground a bit earlier, as long as they’re covered during a frost, Pearson said.

You can speed up warming the soil by covering the garden with a dark tarp or plastic for a few days to let the sun warm the ground.

Once you’ve decided between starting plants or starting seeds, the next big choice is whether you want an in-ground garden or a raised garden bed.

A raised garden bed requires more time, money and resources. However, it’s good if you might have poor soil, because you can fill it with new soil, compost and fertilizer. It also helps people with mobility challenges to have the garden higher off the ground. And it helps keep some pests out of your garden.

Heidi Kass of the Urban Homesteaders of Southeast Minnesota starts seeds at her home on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Heidi Kass of the Urban Homesteaders of Southeast Minnesota starts seeds at her home on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

In-ground planting is cheap and easy. Tilling is not necessary, and will actually hurt soil health.

“There’s all kinds of critters in that soil,” Kirkpatrick said. “Tilling it will wreck everything.”

To fully eliminate grass, she recommends covering an area of lawn for a full season and then planting on it. A shortcut for people planting this year would be to lay down cardboard and cover it with compost and soil deep enough to set your plants in. Make sure the edges of the cardboard overlap, or you will be dealing with well-established grass and weeds pushing into your garden.

Once you’re planting, make sure to space out your plants so they don’t crowd each other.

“That’s a common mistake people make,” Pearson said.

Heidi Kass of the Urban Homesteaders of Southeast Minnesota starts seeds at her home on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Heidi Kass of the Urban Homesteaders of Southeast Minnesota starts seeds at her home on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Some plants do well beside other plants, she added. For example, tomatoes do well next to carrots, basil and many lettuces. Think vertically instead of two-dimensionally, she said. Pearson plants lettuce next to her tomatoes.

With free or cheap seeds, and no equipment to till, a trowel is about the only piece of equipment gardeners recommend having on hand. That makes growing food an inexpensive and fruitful endeavor.

“You definitely don’t need an expensive setup to grow food for yourself,” Pearson said.