Gardening guide

MARQUETTE – Less-than-ideal soil and a short growing season can make gardening especially difficult in the Upper Peninsula, but with planning and dedication, it’s possible to have a bountiful food or ornamental garden. And it’s not too late in the season to start.

Described as “therapy” by U.P. crop production educator Jim Isleib, a “personal addiction” by perennial garden owner Elise Bunce and a “disease or compulsion” by industrial hygienist Lex Koltowicz, gardening is nonetheless recognized by all three as a rewarding but significant challenge.

For beginners, the first step is finding the best placement, according to Isleib of the Michigan State University extension office in Alger County. Flat ground away from trees and buildings is critical to ensure adequate sunlight.

“(Hilly areas) are more difficult to water, and you get soil erosion,” Isleib said. “So pick a spot that’s very flat.”

The next concern is soil improvement, since native soils are often sandy, dry and acidic or have too much clay content, Isleib said. He recommends getting soil tested, especially the first year. Local MSU extension offices have test kits that include instructions on how to fertilize based on test results, as do independent labs or home do-it-yourself kits that can be purchased from local retailers.

Ensuring soil health also means having at least a three-inch deep layer of fertilizer in the form of compost or raw organic material, which will improve plants’ nutrient absorption, Isleib said.

A gardener can buy fertilized soil from retailers, but it can be expensive compared to home-composting (which recycles organic kitchen and yard waste) or purchasing manure from horse owners or local farms.

“If you have a larger garden, it might be an advantage, at least with part of it, to plant something like buckwheat or clover or winter rye,” Isleib said. “Till it into the ground instead of harvesting-it’s called green manure. You do have to do it a year in advance.”

Marquette resident Lex Koltowicz of TriMedia Environmental and Engineering Services taught a class at the Marquette Food Co-op on how to build raised beds, which became a specialty of his when he discovered their advantages in his own garden. Based on a technique known as French intensive gardening, building a raised bed allows for much greater yield in a small space, easier access to the garden, fewer weeds and improved soil with less labor, he said.

“For a beginner, on, say, a city lot with limited space, a raised bed is going to be slightly more work initially, but the return is so much greater and for years to come,” he said.

To set up the bed, the gardener should till the earth with some compostable yard waste like grass clippings, leaves or peat moss, set up untreated lumber around the perimeter and fill it with composted earth. Because of the depth of the loose nutrient-rich soil, the roots of plants grow downward rather than spreading out, making it possible to plant seeds and starts much closer together.

“I would say a raised bed gets two to three times the number of plants in the same square footage,” Koltowicz said. “And a tertiary benefit is when the bed’s all filled out, there’s almost no weeding required because no sunlight hits the soil.”

As far as what to plant, Isleib said successful produce tends to be cold resistant, like the cabbage family: rutabaga, spinach, broccoli and cauliflower for instance.

“Shorter season vegetables have the best chance of success-salad greens, lettuces, cabbages, kohlrabi (German turnip or turnip cabbage), which I love,” Isleib said. “Also, green beans are a good crop for beginners, and onions are not hard to grow.”

Elise Bunce, owner and founder of Rock River Perennial Garden and Greenhouse, has made her specialty finding and developing a wide variety of tomatoes especially good for the U.P. She sells the starts at her garden in Chatham in Alger County and at the Farmer’s Market in Marquette on Saturday mornings. This year, 48 out of her 58 varieties are heirloom tomatoes, all are Genetically Modified Organism-free and most are truly organic, she said.

“When you choose a tomato, there are three things to consider, which are how long it will take to ripen, disease-resistance and flavor,” Bunce said. “Old heirlooms are very flavorful, though they don’t come up as perfect-looking as regular tomatoes. They’re usually disease-resistant and very delicious.”

She also talked about the importance of crop rotation and companion planting, because certain plants thrive beside each other and some share the same diseases or have conflicting root systems. Companion planting charts, which can be found easily online, show that basil likes to grow next to tomatoes, for instance, but peppers do not, she said.

“And crop rotation from year to year keeps the soil nutrient dense and bug- and pathogen-free,” Bunce said.

Isleib did warn about the potential for infestation of cabbage loopers, small, pale-green cabbage worms that become gray moths as adults. Voracious leaf-eaters, they infest the cabbage family as well as tomato, cucumber and potato plants and contaminate produce with dark green fecal pellets.

“If you’re infested, you’ll know it, because your leaves will be full of holes,” Isleib said.

He recommends biological control over chemical pesticides, citing Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a naturally occurring bacterium that is fatal only to caterpillars.

For more information, Alger County Extension Director and U.P. Field Crops Educator Jim Isleib can be contacted by phone at 387-2530 or by email at

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is