Let’s Plan a Garden!

Making a prairie requires a clover and one bee, Emily Dickinson wrote, and reverie – reverie alone, if bees are few. The same might be said for making gardens.

When I was a child the Jung Seed Catalog would arrive during the white of winter, and I would turn glossy pages vibrant with flowers, fruits and vegetables. My mother preferred that Wisconsin company because the seeds and plant stock were compatible with our climate.

To this day I find myself with Jung’s in my lap, staring out the window at my snow-covered garden and dreaming, especially during this past winter.

Kathie Vavra, president of the Door County Master Gardeners Association, also has reveries over Jung’s, not only, she laughs, because it’s her maiden name!

Read on to discover tips on planning and tending a garden year round.

Preparing the Site

Kathie Vavra, Garden Next Door

Diagram submitted by Kathie Vavra.

If you are planning your first garden, choose a level, sunny spot to till, and especially important, Vavra recommends, “for good soil, add enough compost,” available in bags at garden centers. You may want to contact the Door County University of Wisconsin-Extension (920-746-2260) to arrange for a soil test.

While in a perfect world, your garden will have rich, loamy soil that is free of stones, you will find that regardless of topsoil your plants will be eager to survive if they are given consistent loving care.

Planning the Garden

Novice gardeners on newly tilled soil generally have most success by purchasing plants the first year. Tomatoes love new turf and are less troubled by deer and rabbits than many other vegetables. Marigolds are colorful hardy complements.

Some gardeners tend to plant as they go, staking out two-foot wide rows, and as Vavra reminds us, “looking at seed packets for plant size and spacing,” to avoid tall veggies blocking sun from smaller ones.

Other gardeners like to make blueprints, perhaps a formal potager (ornamental kitchen garden). Vavra recommends the Split Rail design, rows planted in quadrants alternating directions as in a quilt block.

This concept is used in the Youth Gardens located at the Garden Door, plots maintained by the Door County Master Gardeners at the Peninsular Agricultural Research Station north of Sturgeon Bay on Highway 42. Visitors will not only discover inspiration touring the gardens, Vavra notes, but will find gardening authorities happy to answer questions.

She also recommends visits to the Master Gardeners website that in addition to general information, provides links to sites that provide answers to specific horticultural concerns.

If you have a sunny window with a southern exposure, consider starting some of your plants from seeds. My mother used cottage cheese cartons filled with woodland soil to begin her tomatoes, cabbage and peppers, but you may choose to purchase a seed-starting medium and plastic flats with sectional squares. Check your seed packages for starting dates, and Vavra cautions care in watering, as too much will lead to seedLen Villanoling damp-off.

“And be willing to experiment,” Vavra urges gardeners. Last year she harvested artichokes!

Planting the Garden

Memorial Day generally marks the end of killing frosts in Door County, but Vavra warns gardeners to watch the weather rather than the calendar, as conditions vary from year to year. Cabbages, potatoes, onions and peas are among the vegetables that may be planted in spring as soon as the soil can be worked, while tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, corn and beans should be planted after that holiday when the soil has warmed.

I apply fertilizer topically after planting, and as a nod toward organic practice, use Milwaukee’s Milorganite.

Maintaining the Garden

Door County gardeners (especially those on the northern end of the peninsula) face unique challenges regarding both soil quality and moisture. The light and rocky topsoil dries out quickly and the area receives little rain during midsummer. Gardeners need to adapt both through the selection of plants (opting for drought resistant varieties of perennials and shrubs) and horticultural techniques.

Vavra points out that the Research Station has an in-ground irrigation system. Some of us with smaller gardens use soaker hoses. I install mine after planting and cover them first with layers of newspapers between the rows and then old hay or straw. Vavra recommends marsh hay as it is free of weed seeds.

My perennial beds, on the other hand, I mulch with shredded bark and water with a garden hose.

Some garden predators may be controlled with a “rabbit fence,” woven-wire fencing with closely spaced bottom wire. An aggressive dog that marks and prowls its territory helps to keep varmints at bay.

To counter insect pests, I inspect my plants frequently and, as Vavra recommends, use a pesticide only upon spotting damage.

Gary Jones

Photo by Gary Jones.

Harvesting the Garden

Daily visits to the garden are not only a sensory delight, but a necessity for timely harvests. One day the broccoli is ready to pick, and the next, it is a yellow bouquet. Walking through your garden while planning a menu to incorporate fresh produce is a summer pleasure. If you have more than you can eat, consider canning or freezing, sharing with neighbors or donating to a food pantry. Harvesting some root vegetables, such as carrots and parsnips, continues until the ground is frozen.

A number of us at retirement age enjoy canning our bounty as homey gifts for our busy adult children.

Closing the Garden

Just as planting the garden is a gradual process, so is putting it away for winter. Most gardeners compost throughout the summer, and “at the end of the season,” Vavra said, “we take everything out and put it on the compost pile,” (with the exception of diseased vegetation that should be discarded). At the Garden Door, the compost is watered and turned to speed decomposition.

Some gardeners till in the fall to help mulch break down more quickly; at the Garden Door, Vavra said, the plots are disked in the autumn.

And so we put our garden to bed for its long winter’s nap while we wait for the arrival of the first seed catalog and those reveries that will bloom next summer.

Door County Master Gardeners

Every year the Door County Master Gardeners offer classes for those who wish to join the ranks of Master Gardeners, accepting up to two-dozen peninsula gardeners who take the course. The Master Gardeners sponsor many annual events including their plant sale and Taste of the Garden Door.

Kathie Vavra, Door County Master Gardeners president, encourages gardeners to patronize the plant sale that is held at the Garden Door the last Saturday in May.

Also, the Garden Door is Len Villanocelebrating its 10th anniversary this year with an open house on July 12th. A recent Raibrook Foundation grant provided funding to make the gardens handicapped accessible.

For more information visit


Apartment and condominium dwellers may wish to investigate plots in one of the area’s community gardens.


A few gardeners use the no-till “lasagna” method; mulch is left untouched in the fall, and in the spring, rather than working the soil, gardeners part the cover for planting, and then supplement it with more mulch.


Gardeners may find inspiration from annual local garden tours; the Ministry Door County Medical Center House and Garden Walk, and the Sister Bay Historical Society Garden Walk are both popular on the peninsula.

The 54th annual Door County Medical Center Auxiliary House and Garden Walk is scheduled for July 29, 2014, 9 am to 5 pm.

Photography by Len Villano.

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