Expert Advice for Growing a Backyard Vegetable Garden in Northeast Wisconsin

Expert Backyard Gardening Advice

When you stop by local home improvement stores and greenhouses these days, you’re going to run into some crowds and long lines.

It feels a little like Black Friday – except people aren’t quite as cranky and rushed as they are during the holiday shopping season. That’s because we’re all freshening up our yards, starting outdoor projects and planting our gardens. The summer season is on it’s way  – and that feels good.

If you’ve been thinking about starting your own backyard garden, now is the perfect time to dig up a patch of soil and plant your own veggies.

You can actually get a pretty big bang for your buck with a backyard vegetable garden. According to research from the National Gardening Association, an investment of $70 in a garden could bring a family as much as $600 worth of produce. Burpee Seeds claims a garden is worth even more – saying spending $50 on seeds could lead to $1200 of food!

Of course, those of us who’ve gardened for awhile have all had our fair share of disasters. And you have to put in the work if you want to get a good return.

We talked with employees at local greenhouses and gardening experts to get the straight scoop on gardening in Northeast Wisconsin. Here are a few tips for folks who are just getting started.

3 Backyard Gardening Tips

1. Where to Put Your Garden

When you decide on a spot for your vegetable garden you’ll want to consider a few things. First, make sure that you find a spot that gets a decent amount of sun – at least five or six hours a day.

You’ll also want to pick a spot that’s fairly level. You don’t want water running to one side. If your yard is on an incline, you’ll have to level out the ground yourself when you dig up the garden bed.

The size of the garden is up to you. I have a fairly typical-sized backyard in Green Bay and installed two 5′ by 10′ beds. It all depends on how much of your lawn you want to be taken over by vegetables, and how much you want to grow and harvest.

2. Understanding Your Soil

Once you’ve dug up the garden – either with a rototiller or with a shovel and sweat – you should take a look at the soil. Soil needs to allow for aeration and drainage as well as provide nutrients to your plants.

wisconsin soil regions

Click for larger image. (Courtesy:

There are a lot of different soil types in the state of Wisconsin. In our region, you could find sandy loams as well as soil with a lot of clay.

Both can be somewhat problematic – but it’s going to be harder to break down clayey soil than build up sandy stuff. The easiest thing to do is add good soil and organic material to what you already have.

Find a quality top soil, add dairy cow manure and peat moss (which you can find at places like Menard’s). Start composting and add that to the mix.

There are a few different things you can do to test your soil. University extension programs have services in which someone will come out to test it and give you some information. You can also purchase home-testing kits or try out this interactive tool from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

3. What to Plant in Your Garden

Deciding what you want to grow is the fun part. You’re mapping out your gardening masterpiece, and your mouth is already starting to water.

You’ll want to consider how much sun your garden gets and what your soil is like. Some plants need more sunlight than others and some plants will have a hard time growing in certain kinds of soil. So do a little research before you plant.

Alex Fehrenbach of Grow Local in Neenah recommends planting good companion plants. These are things that grow well next to each other because they don’t compete, help control pests and have other beneficial factors for neighboring plants.

“For example we grow heirloom tomatoes, peppers, garlic and basil, all in close proximity. The basil is aromatic and therefore repels some pests, and the tomatoes help create a humid micro-climate for the peppers, and so on,” he explains. “Some other companion plantings include spinach, cilantro, and beans, or peas, dill and cucumbers.”

However, Fehrenbach also says the most important thing to consider is planting things you and your family will enjoy.

“Grow what you like to eat and learn from your mistakes, because there will be plenty,” he says.

3 Rookie Gardener Mistakes

It’s true – mistakes are a big part of gardening. But thanks to Alex and other local gardening experts, you can avoid some of the big ones.

1. Planting Too Early

It’s easy to jump the gun and put sensitive plants in the ground before the time is right. Things like tomatoes and cucumbers are tropical plants that need the soil temperature to stay at least 50 degrees and should be planted after danger of frost.

That’s easier said than done around here. Let’s not forget that we’ve had May snowstorms in Northeast Wisconsin over recent years. Plus, it’s not uncommon to get some frost on the ground in early June. Keep an eye on the forecast, and do what you can to cover and protect your plants.

I was speaking with an employee of Lindsley’s Greenhouse in Green Bay just yesterday, asking if I was smart to put tomatoes in the ground at this point. She said she was going to wait until next weekend for hers. In general, Memorial Day weekend (give or take a week) is a good time to get most things planted.

However, there are some crops that do well in cooler weather – including peas and radishes as well as lettuce and spinach.

“We grow leafy greens in the cooler months and cover them at night to insure they don’t freeze,” says Fehrenbach.

2. Planting Too Much

Guilty as charged! Every year I try to cram a little too much into my backyard garden, and every year I wish I hadn’t.

It’s tough to fight because you always start out the season with high hopes of a huge harvest. But overcrowding your garden could mean plants are competing for space and nutrients. Last year I made the mistake of planting some squash too close to my cucumbers. The vines choked each other out and my return was pretty pathetic.

Thinning out seedlings is important too. Plants need room to grow in the ground – especially roots and bulbs like radishes, carrots and onions.

3. Losing the Battle to Weeds and Pests

rabbit-in-gardenPlanting and harvesting are the parts of gardening everybody enjoys. The tough part is in between.

That’s when you’re on your hands and knees pulling weeds, fighting off pesky insects and scaring away nibbling rabbits.

It’s easy to get lazy around the 4th of July as vacations come and sticky summer days make you want to hide out in the air conditioning. But that’s when your gardening enemies will defeat you.

Using things like insecticide is your choice. However, if you’re determined to go all-natural, there are some solutions. has a few suggestions.

“Gardeners all over the world have found that natural citrus-based insecticides will kill off most of the pests you are likely to see in your garden.”

Alex Fehrenbach from Grow Local in Neenah has another natural remedy for garden invaders.

“Marigolds are always a great addition to any garden as they help repel rabbits and other pests. Using plant’s natural ability to aid one another helps us garden without pesticides or inorganic fertilizers,” he says.

Rabbits have decimated my garden the past couple years, even digging under fencing to get to my peas and beans. In years before that, I used marigolds. But I always assumed it was just for bugs. Turns out the pungent smell of those flowers turn bunnies off.

Where to Get More Expert Advice on Vegetable Gardening

There are some great greenhouses in Green Bay and the Fox Cities with people who are pretty much gardening gurus. When you have questions – ask them – not the folks who work in the Wal-Mart garden center or even at most home improvement stores.

I’m sure there are some people at those places who have answers. But the truth is – most of them are just normal employees who moved outdoors for gardening season. I know…because I was one of them at the age of 16. Working at a regionally based department store (which shall remain nameless but rhymes with Flopko) I knew how to use the hose and the cash register – that’s it.

Here are some local greenhouses where you can find both plants and advice.

Green Bay Area

Appleton and Fox Cities Area

Suggested Reading

If you’re already an expert and the advice in this article makes you go “Duh,” there’s a great book I can recommend that tells you virtually everything you need to know about gardening in Wisconsin.

Check out The Wisconsin Garden Guide by Jerry Minnich. He’s been updating this book since 1975 and covers landscaping, flowers, fruit trees, herbs and much more in addition to backyard gardening advice.

We want to hear your advice too!

Leave us a comment with your own gardening story or expert tip…

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  1. Amy Steinbrinck says

    Good article, Kasey! There are always people who are just starting out in their garden adventures. Gardening in spring and summer brings many a joy that only working in the outdoors can give. And, in the winter it brings us hope for spring and summer as we plan our gardens and plant some seeds indoors. It encourages us that spring is “just around the corner.” Gardening is a healthy hobby all around physically, emotionally and economically.

  2. Great job and cute picture 🙂

  3. Pests have been my biggest problem in trying to grow a veg garden. Thanks for the tips!

  4. Gail Carriveau says

    As a long time vegetable gardener, hardware cloth fencing dug 6″ into the ground and high enough so rabbits cannot jump over is the best way to deter rabbits.
    The UW Extension offices in Appleton and Green Bay have excellent publications for the home gardener. Most are very low cost or can be downloaded from their website
    If you plan on starting vegetables from seed the time to start some like tomatoes and peppers is now. You need to know the date you want to or can plant certain vegetables outside and count backwards from the seed packet recommendations to know your seed starting date.

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