Megan Cain is a garden educator, writer and speaker. In addition to teaching classes and offering consulting services around Madison, Cain offers tips for gardening novices and experts through her website, The Creative Vegetable Gardener, where people can sign up for her free email list or purchase her books.
She chatted with the Cap Times about her favorite vegetables, the advice she has for beginners and which plants can survive a Wisconsin winter.
Did you grow up gardening? How did you get started?
I always joke, when you live in Wisconsin and you teach about gardening, people assume you grew up on a farm, but I grew up on the opposite of a farm, which was a row home in Philadelphia. I didn’t know anyone who gardened. We didn’t really have a yard. I didn’t really know that gardening was a thing that people did, really — certainly not growing food.
I really didn’t know anything about it, and after I graduated college I moved to San Francisco, and while I was there I started to think I wanted to learn how to grow food. In San Francisco there were a lot of farmers markets, the local food movement was kind of in full swing. I ended up getting an internship and moved to a farm in northeast Missouri. It was a huge culture shock, since I had only ever lived in big cities, and I was in a town of 100 people. Lots of different people lived on the land and that’s when I started to learn how to grow food. I learned from lots of different people. Looking back, I can see a decision that I made kind of shot my life in a totally different direction, which has led me to where I am now. I didn’t really know that I loved gardening until I tried it.
Why should people try gardening?
I always say if I can do it, anybody can do it. The feeling of going out into your yard and harvesting something that then you eat for dinner or breakfast or lunch is such an amazing feeling, that you grew it yourself, you bring it into your kitchen and you eat it. Especially nowadays, when tech is such a huge part of our lives, gardening can offer us a chance to create something with our own two hands, to get outside and be physical and connect with nature. Gardening is creating something, and it’s creating something for yourself and your family to eat. In that way I think it kind of puts us in touch with our food and really, how food is grown.
It never even crossed my mind, what does a broccoli plant look like? When you just get all your food from the grocery store you don’t really have to think about those things, you just see it how it is on the shelf. I think it can be really fascinating and really fun, and I think, for me, it brings a very deep joy into my life.
What are your favorite things to grow?
It kind of depends on the time of year. I would say spinach is probably one of my overall favorite things to grow because it can actually survive the winter in Wisconsin. I’m actually eating spinach from my garden that I grew last August. It’s pretty amazing I’m still eating a plant from last year’s garden. We grow a lot of garlic and a lot of onions because they both store pretty easily for the winter. And red peppers, really red, yellow, orange. Any kind of non-green pepper.
Are there plants that are easier for beginners to try?
I think herbs are a good place to start, because they’re expensive from the grocery store. A lot of us tend to buy herbs and they'll go bad in the refrigerator. The nice thing about herbs is you can just go out and snip. A lot of them are perennial, like thyme, oregano and sage, will often come back depending on the variety. You just plant them once and they’ll come back. Some that are more annual, like cilantro and basil. They’re all pretty easy.
Tomatoes are usually on people’s lists. They’re pretty easy. One thing I talk about in the latest book that I wrote, there’s some vegetables you can come back and harvest from over and over again. Those are the ones that feel like you’re getting a good bang for your buck. Like kale, you can plant this time of year and keep going back even past frost and it’ll just keep regrowing. So, plants you can kind of return to over and over again, those are fun ones to start with for new gardeners, as opposed to something like broccoli.
What advice do you give to new gardeners?
One piece of advice is to start small. I think it’s important for people to have success and to have fun if they’re going to continue it. Just starting with one or two, raised beds are pretty easy to start with. Build a box and just start with one or two and see how you like it. I think also trying to meet other gardeners, getting involved in a community of gardeners so you can ask questions and share information is a good way. I think starting with some of those easy plants. Some things are more difficult to grow in our area than others.
Buying plants from the farmers market is a big piece of advice that I give people. Not going to the big box store, just buying from farmers in our area, people that are growing the plants in their fields. I actually like to buy from CSA farmers the most. I grow a lot of my own plants but I usually buy a few. I usually go to the farmers market and buy from CSA farmers.
Space can be an issue for people living in downtown Madison, particularly in apartments. Can you garden without a big yard?
Herbs are a good candidate for containers because they’re easier to grow, and most of them don’t mind drying out a little bit. My garden is in my front yard and I would say, don’t be afraid to put your garden wherever you have the most sun. If you put a raised bed in your front lawn, who cares? I’m actually a big proponent of front yard gardens because I’ve met so many people in my neighborhood because I’m always in my front yard. Very often, people will stop by, will pull over their cars and ask me questions and comment. It’s been a lot of fun and I think some people are worried about putting vegetable gardens where people can see them. I would say don’t be afraid, put it wherever you have the most sun. Who cares? It’ll be a conversation piece.
This is the time of year everyone's thinking about gardening, but is it something you can do year-round in Wisconsin?
In the last year, I harvested out of my garden every month except for January. I don’t have a heated greenhouse or anything like that. This is kind of advanced gardening, but you can use a cold frame or a low tunnel. I’ve been experimenting with that the last few years and I’ve been able to keep things alive longer in the fall so that I can harvest into December. And then also, I had a few things survive that usually die in the winter, and then they came back. I had cilantro that came back and started growing in February, and my spinach started growing in February.
Even without any cover whatsoever, spinach will survive the winter, at least in southern Wisconsin. You can’t necessarily harvest it in December and January because we don’t have a lot of light so it’s not really growing. But it will survive the winter and will start growing again once we start getting light. And garlic, you plant in October or November and it just hangs out over the winter.
How much time should people expect to spend tending to their plants?
I am all for trying to keep it as simple as possible and not doing a bunch of unnecessary work, like spending time weeding. I think it kind of ebbs and flows throughout the season. This is the time of year I spend more time in my garden because I’m planting and preparing beds, but then there’s kind of a lull often in June and part of July where you’re just kind of waiting for things to grow, and it also depends on how big your garden is.
I think if somebody has one or two raised beds, it really shouldn’t be much work at all. It’s not like you have to be out there every day. I have a pretty big garden and I don’t work in my garden every day. There’s several days that go by that I haven’t done anything.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
One thing that I talk about a lot is, I think sometimes vegetable gardens get a bad rap. People think they’re kind of ugly, but that’s one of my missions, is to elevate the vegetable garden into something that’s really beautiful and can be a central part of people’s landscapes. I’m a big proponent of having a vegetable garden that produces a lot of food and is also beautiful to look at, and I think you can have both. You very much can create a beautiful vegetable garden.
One easy way to start is mix flowers into your vegetable garden. I think vegetable plants are pretty, and they’re mostly green. The nice thing about planting flowers is it gives a lot of pops of color throughout your garden that you wouldn’t get with just vegetables.