Spring 2021

Winter may be ending but there’s no Spring Thaw this year!

Well, gardeners, we are sorry to say it, but, due to pandemic restrictions, we were not able to hold our annual community gardening kick-off event this year. The Spring Thaw, CGC’s biggest annual event has been going on for as long as anyone on the board can remember. (We got lucky last year, as it was held mere weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic lock-down began.)

two gardeners at a Spring Thaw holding packetsTypically, at the Spring Thaw, newcomers are able to get connected to a new garden, returning gardeners get organized with their garden leaders for the new season, and gardeners are able to pick up seeds and how-to information. In the absence of this event, we have packaged and distributed seeds directly to garden leaders. In addition, if you haven’t told your garden leader that you want to continue gardening with us, please let them know immediately as there may be others waiting for plots! And, finally, if you or someone you know would like to start gardening at a community garden, you can request a space via this short form and we will do our best to find a plot for you!

As you get started with your garden, here are some opportunities and resources for learning more about how to grow your favorite veggies.

  • The final session of the Mid-MO Expo is happening today (Saturday, March 13) online. For just a $6 fee, you can learn about “Dealing with Nuisance Wildlife.” Arrangements can also be made to view the recorded session on “Invasive Plant Identification and Removal.” Register here.

  • The Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture has dozens of informative how-to videos offered on their YouTube channel. Topics include: seed germination testing, harvesting, garden pests, mulching, weeds, and many more. A new video series is coming out soon for 2021, too.

  • The Unite4Health community garden is planning to host a workshop later this spring with a soil scientist to discuss organic gardening and increasing beneficial microbes. Details to be announced soon.

  • For a more in-depth learning option, MU Extension is offering the online course “The Beginning Gardener-Getting Started with Vegetables 2021” through April 17 for a $40 fee. Details and registration here.

The Spring Thaw has always been a fun time for all, and we are sorry to miss seeing all your excited, smiling faces this year!

Don’t Get Left Behind; It’s Almost GARDENING Time!

Are you thinking about your 2021 garden? You should be! There’s plenty (drought, pests, disease) that can go wrong despite good planning. Why make things more difficult by waiting until the last minute?

Here’s what I do every January when it’s bitterly cold or icy and I don’t want to venture outside. First I get out my gardening journal — surely you have one! I admit that I didn’t start keeping a yearly garden journal for almost 20 years. Then I forgot and bought seeds for a tomato variety that I had grown before and didn’t like. What a waste of valuable garden space! Lesson learned! Anyway, I go through my notes from the previous year and see what varieties I planted and how they did in regards to yield, diseases, pests, etc. Then I ask my co-gardener, Matt, what he liked best about the garden (sugar snap peas!) and what he didn’t like (kale—but it’s good for him!). Then I trace a new garden outline into my journal from my layout map and start planning what will make the cut this year.

Kathy's husband standing between rows of trellised peas in their garden
Matt in the sugar snap peas

Knowing how many square feet you have to plant is critical to proper spacing of your plants. If there’s one complaint I hear more than any other it’s “my plants didn’t do well and I barely got anything from them.” I’d estimate that 80% of the time it’s because the gardener tried to cram too many plants into too small a space. While intensive gardening can be very successful, it is usually the result of mixing different plants with different requirements throughout the season — not planting 4 pepper plants in 4 square feet.

I’d suggest referring to this MU Extension guide for suggested spacing if you are planting a lot of one type of vegetable. If you want to do intensive gardening in a small space, consult this section of the MU Extension Missouri Master gardener manual.

While CGC gardeners will be offered seeds and plants of tried and true varieties during the season, it can be fun to look to other sources for new and exciting varieties. Your choices are mind-boggling. If this interests you, I suggest looking now while the best varieties are still available because that seed goes fast!

After deciding what plants I want to grow, I go through all my leftover seeds. Questions I ask myself are: what types have I got, how old are they, and is there enough for the upcoming season. Did you know that many seeds are good for several years if stored under cool, dark, and dry conditions? Opinions vary on seed viability lengths but here’s a quick rundown from Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog:

1 Year: onions, parsnips, parsley, salsify, spinach

2 Years: corn, peas, beans, chives, okra

3 Years: carrots, leeks, asparagus, turnips

4 Years: peppers, chard, pumpkins, squash, watermelons, basil

5 Years: cauliflower, broccoli, beets, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers,
muskmelons, celery, lettuce, endive

one red and two green tomatoes on the vine

Next up, are you growing any plants from seed at home? Each year, I grow a variety of our favorite heirloom tomatoes from seeds that I have saved from last year’s fruits. It’s really very easy, just get on the Internet and type in “saving tomato seeds.”

However, if you’re inspired to try this yourself keep in mind that only “open-pollinated” seeds will breed true and be nearly identical to the parent plant. In other words, do not attempt this with hybrid varieties unless you are okay with mystery vegetables! For tips on the necessary supplies and methods of starting various vegetable seeds at home check out this MU extension guide.

Finally, for a good overall guide to get you started, try Vegetable Gardening by James Quinn and David Trinklein, Division of Plant Sciences, University of Missouri.

Here’s wishing you a happy and productive 2021 gardening season!

Fall Garden Spotlight: Green Beans

I love fresh green beans, but most of the ones I find at the store look nowhere near “fresh.” Plus, fresh, commercially-grown, non-organic green beans did not pass Consumer Reports’ recent pesticide residue tests (Consumer Reports, “Stop Eating Pesticides,” August 27, 2020). They recommend eating organic green beans. So here’s an idea for you gardeners out there.

At my house, we plant green beans every spring in either April or May depending on the weather forecasts. We harvest LOTS of beans throughout the summer until they start to decline in early August. At that time, we either rip those plants out and replant, or, if we have the space, we plant a couple new 8-foot rows of bush beans, wait a week and plant another couple of rows. By mid-September, we start getting beautiful, damage-free beans, since most of the insect pests of beans are waning in numbers. This year, we’ve been picking about a half-pound a day for weeks. Yesterday we had a full pound, and that was just from two of the 8-foot rows! Not bad for October! This is a great way to get a second crop from areas of your garden that may not be producing much anymore. Although I missed the boat this year, I have also had success planting Sugar Ann peas for the fall. Both crops work with bacteria to fix nitrogen in your soil.

So as you start to plan for next year, here’s what I suggest: don’t plant all your bean seeds in the spring. Hold back a few, and give this a try. You may be happily surprised with a nice harvest of fresh green beans before those cold winter days and frozen vegetables become the norm.

Access to Healthy Food for Everyone at the Farmers Market

Do you know someone struggling to pay for food in this year unlike any other? Please help us spread awareness about the Access to Healthy Food (AHF) program offered by the Columbia Farmers Market.

The AHF program allows qualifying individuals to be matched up to $25 at each market, which can be spent on fresh products from local farms. To qualify, individuals must be Boone County residents, receive SNAP or WIC benefits, and have children 19 or under, be disabled, or be a senior 60 or older. Bring your EBT card or WIC packet to the Oasis booth at Columbia Farmers Market to sign up.

Best Practices for Virus Safety at Community Gardens

Tending your community garden plot can be a stress-relieving activity and an important way to supplement your grocery shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic. The health department has assured us that gardeners can continue to use their community garden plots. However, even as the City and County reopen, it is still important to be aware of the potential to spread the virus even if you don’t know you are ill. The following guidelines should still be followed at your garden.

Below are our recommendations for gardening at this time:

  1. Do not come to the garden if you are not feeling well or someone you live with does not feel well.
  2. Do not enter the garden if there are already 10 people there; come back later.
  3. Keep your distance (6 feet or more) from other gardeners. The CDC says this virus can be spread by people without any symptoms. If you need to be within 6 feet of another gardener, wear a mask.
  4. Clean off tool and hose handles before and after use because the virus has been found to survive up to 3 days on hard surfaces. We recommend you bring a towel or rag and use a solution of 4 teaspoons of bleach per quart of water to wipe down any tools that you use after removing any dirt.
  5. Please wash your hands with soap and water before and after gardening. If soap is not provided then consider bringing some with you.
  6. Use your own hand tools if you have them.
  7. Wear gloves if possible. Although they can spread the virus, they may help you remember not to touch your face.

Community Garden Coalition

We hope you’re able to enjoy spring weather and make use of your gardening opportunity this year, despite the unusual circumstances. Stay safe, respect your fellow gardeners and happy gardening!

Native Plants Can Help Your Garden Thrive

The Missouri Prairie Foundation and the Grow Native initiative have put together a fact sheet about the relationship between native plants, pollinators and fruit and vegetable production. See which native plants attract the pollinators your vegetables need.

Did you know? Native plants help fruits and vegetables thrive. (Handout from Missouri Prairie Foundation.

Perhaps there’s a corner of your garden plot, an area around the edges of the garden or a communal plot that could be home to some of these important native flowers. The CGC can help connect you and your community garden leader with a native plant consultant from the City of Columbia and our group may be able to offer some funding for native plant projects. Just get in touch with us at info@comogarden.org.

Sustainability Speaker Series

Learn about pollinator conservation from three speakers at a free event sponsored by the City of Columbia.

Sustainability Speaker Series:
Pollinator Conservation

Thursday, November 14, 2019
6-8 p.m.
City Hall, Room 1A/B

Wildlife experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MO Dept. of Conservation, University of Missouri, and the City of Columbia will talk about pollinator conservation challenges, habitat restoration, and policy that are occurring at all levels of government.

Come for the entire event or just for a little bit. All are welcome including children.

Cover Crops in Community Gardens

Prepared by guest contributor Samuel Garrett McKee with assistance from David Neely and Margaret Rossano. Garrett is a garden leader of the Circus-Lyons Community Garden.

Cover crops have become increasingly popular in the past several years, seeing use from large-scale producers down to mid- and small-scale operations. Originating in pre-industrial times, cover crops have been an organic and sustainable, tried-and-true, method of using naturally occurring cycles to benefit soils for hundreds of years. The benefits are clearly seen once implemented, even at the community garden plot scale (10×10 ft, for example). At the Circus-Lyons Community Garden, we have been using cover crops for the past two years with solid results.   

Essentially, when a garden plot would otherwise be unused, we “cover” that soil with a special crop of plants, the purpose of which is to feed the soil, rather than to feed the gardeners. Several weeks before you want to use that plot again for annual planting, the crop is cut down and the plant matter incorporated back into the soil. Fall is a great time to start implementing a cover crop at your garden. Read on for more information and detailed advice.

cover crop planted in October that survived the winter and is growing well in February
Feb. 3, 2019. Cover crop planted in late October, cereal rye, Austrian winter peas and crimson clover. Established before coldest weather hit, overwintering well even with a real winter.  It’s merely waiting for longer warmer days and will likely be a foot tall by April 1.

The amount of information on cover crops can be daunting when you first begin the research, however, clarity can be found by thinking of cover-cropping as reminiscent of natural cycles. Central Missouri was once home to native tall-grass prairie ecosystems: perennial grasslands that harvest sunlight during the growing season and put the resulting carbon into plant  tissue, which is in turn harvested by grazing animals or consumed by wildfire, thus promoting plant competition and further unimpeded growth and diversification. This cycle was carried on without human intervention, adding yearly inputs to the soil.  

Typically, gardeners and farmers plant annual crops during a growing season, fertilize with off-site inputs, harvest, remove any residue of the crop, and then consider things finished. This leaves our soil more or less bare during the winter season, opening up invasion opportunities for weeds as well as the potential for erosion. This system is not reliably found in the natural world where there is continuous biological activity in the soil, year-round. This is what cover crops aim to fulfill.   

rye and clover cover crop with soil probe showing deep rich soil
Jan. 28, 2017. Cereal rye and crimson clover cover crop with soil probe showing the color you’re looking for!

Effective cover-cropping imitates a prairie system in that it provides more overall diversity and duration of biological activity to a plot. It can also stabilize soil; armor against weedy species and erosion; improve water capture/infiltration into subsoil; and improve the soil’s physical, chemical and biological makeup. Many resources exist for guidance on the matter, however, I will speak for what has worked for us at the plot level in our community garden.

Species Selection

Species used are many and again can be daunting to the beginner.  I tend to think about them in botanical terms; grasses (graminaceae), forbs (many families, but you can think of them mainly as flowers), legumes (fabaceae). 


Species include cereal rye, oats, annual ryegrass, winter wheat and sorghum.

Pros: Grasses are competitive against weeds (including Bermuda grass!), they establish quickly and reliably, and they can be harvested for grain, mulch or hay, or even grazed. Grasses scavenge soil nutrients that would otherwise leach out or be taken up by weeds. Also, they are usually very winter hardy, easy to plant in fall and inexpensive. Species include cereal rye, oats, annual ryegrass, winter wheat and sorghum.

Cons: Grasses can easily out-compete forbs or legumes planted alongside them, detracting from overall benefits of diverse cover crop plantings. Cereal rye, upon termination, suppresses weeds and/or seed germination allelopathically in the soil, meaning that compounds released by the rye as it is killed will stifle germination of other species for a short period.  A solution to this minor issue would be to allow two to three weeks of inactivity between termination and the next planting.

cover crop planting at community garden
April 23, 2018. Cereal rye, crimson clover, winter wheat adjacent to hand tilled, just terminated cover crop


Species include radishes, turnips, buckwheat, and sunflowers.

Pros: Forbs usually have deeper root systems that scavenge/capture nutrients in the topsoil that are unavailable to many crops. The, provide bloom and beauty, and some can be harvested for seeds or flowers, or they can be grazed.

Cons: They are sometimes slower growing or difficult to get established, and they sometimes cost more.


Species include clovers, vetches, winter peas, black-eyed peas (cowpeas).

Pros: Legumes sequester nitrogen from the atmosphere and make it available to plants in the rhizosphere (rooting zone). They provide beauty and blooms for pollinators, and can be grazed or harvested for hay/mulch.

Cons: They are they usually slower to establish than grass, and the seed should be inoculated prior to planting. Red clover is a perennial and will persist when not desired, and vetches are semi-aggressive invaders into both urban and wild environments.

Fall Cover Crops

After the summer garden crops have played out and freezing temperatures are on the horizon, you should be thinking of cover cropping by October through mid-November.  The trick is to get the crop established and at least 4- to 6-inches tall before the harsh temperatures set in. Species that work well at this time include Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, cereal rye, winter wheat, and oats. Doing a two to four species mixture seems to work well, as each year is different and having multiple species to fill in unexpected gaps is ideal. Cereal rye, crimson clover and winter peas have been a good combo for us at Circus-Lyon garden. 

Late Winter/Early Spring Cover Crops

Similar species as work in the fall will also work from late February through March and even into early April. Snap peas could be viable for this outcome, as well, since they are a legume. We’ve even had seed sown in January warm spells that germinates in early March and grows vigorously all throughout spring. 

Summer Cover Crops

After a spring crop is harvested, you can plan to seed a cover crop into an otherwise fallow plot.  Species which work well for this would be buckwheat, mustard greens, annual sorghum, black eyed peas or anything which can handle heat, sunshine and long growing days. Buckwheat puts out a long taproot, bringing otherwise unavailable nutrients up into your plot’s topsoil as well as providing much-needed blooms for pollinators. However, if left to go to seed, buckwheat will seed your plot in many little individuals that will compete with desired crops when given the opportunity! Cowpeas (or Black-eyed peas) are a great legume choice for summer. 

buckwheat cover crop planted in summer amongst other garden vegetables
Aug. 5, 2017 Buckwheat establishment following sweet corn.

Terminating Your Cover Crop

Cover crops must be “terminated” once the time rolls around for planting of desired food crops.  Many ways exist to do this, but I will detail the way which has worked for us. First we mow or weed-eat the cover crop about two to three weeks prior to our desired planting date. We let the residue of the cover crop sit for several days after mowing, then turn it by hand into the soil using a shovel or a tiller.  Small plots are best done by hand. Be sure to break up the clods and root systems while turning it over, and try to get dead plant matter buried. This provides food for earthworms and countless other micro biota in the soil to consume and make available for your soon-to-follow food crops. Some warmer season cover crops, such as oats or buckwheat, will self-terminate, or winterkill, when exposed to cold temperatures. This is also a convenient time to incorporate compost into the soil to feed the incoming crop.  

cover crop mowed down and tilled in
March 30, 2018. Mowed cover crop adjacent to mowed, then tilled cover crop.

Optionally, legumes and forbs can be allowed to flower before you terminate them, which provides blooms for native pollinators and honey bees (crimson clover is worth growing for the flower alone!). Buckwheat seed can be harvested easily enough by hand and used the following year, or ground into gluten-free flower. Cowpeas and snap peas can be harvested for consumption.     

A good cover crop is a species that “behaves” in an agricultural setting, meaning it doesn’t escape or become invasive, is an annual, doesn’t persist after termination, and is consistent in establishing  and flowering like any other crop. A cover crop’s ability to suppress weeds is perhaps its most powerful feature, as the ideal period after termination to planting is a very short window, excluding many undesirable weed species otherwise abundant in our community gardens.


In summary, cover crops provide a suite of benefits to your garden plot including improving soil structure, fertility, water holding capacity and overall diversity; weed suppression; carbon sequestration; soil conservation; and supporting earthworms, pollinators and wildlife habitat. We have ordered cover crop seed through Wilson’s Garden Center or picked up larger custom amounts from Bourn Feed and Supply Inc., both located here in Columbia.   

Another wonderful benefit you will notice immediately is the aesthetic beauty the verdant, lush cover crops provide during otherwise dreary times of year. As the great conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote,

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Cover crops can help community gardeners accomplish this simple yet powerful truth.

Tips for Watering Community Gardens

This year, the City of Columbia is raising water rates during the summer months to encourage water conservation. This may impact community gardens to a great extent. The Community Garden Coalition and others have worked with the City to successfully create an exemption to protect some community gardens from the highest water rate tier.

Regardless, we all want to make the best use of the water we use and not waste it. Following are some tips for efficient and effective use of water.

  1. Most plants need about an inch of water a week. In very hot and windy weather, they may need two inches of water in a week. Raised beds will need more water than regular garden plots. 
  2. It is best for the plants to water deeply once or twice a week. This will encourage the roots to move deeper into the ground and will make more efficient use of the water in the soil. When you are starting seeds, it will be necessary to keep the soil moist, so you may need to apply water more than once a week until the plants are established.
  3. Many of our soils in central Missouri are high in clay content. Adding organic matter will benefit plants and also increase the water holding capacity, making better use of water. Compost is one of the best ways to add organic matter.
  4. Applying water to the base of plants will make the best use of water. Ideally soaker hoses or drip irrigation is the most efficient, but that is not practical in most of our community gardens. Directing water to the base of plants will help in water conservation. It will also keep water off the leaves of plants and reduce the chances of diseases.
  5. Watering in the morning is better than watering in the evening as leaves of plants will have a chance to dry off during the day and will reduce disease development.
  6. Mulching plants will help conserve water. Leaves and grass clippings and straw make good mulch and can be turned into the soil in the fall to improve organic matter. The Community Garden Coalition provides some straw during the season. (Ask your garden leader if you don’t know how to obtain straw.)
  7. To make watering easier, group plants that require the most water together. These include lettuce, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers and cabbage. Group plants that require less water together. These include beans and corn.

At some gardens, there have been times where water was left on all night, soaking the garden plot and running onto other plots. This is very wasteful and we hope you will make an effort to see that this doesn’t happen at your garden. If you find water left on and unattended, it’s best to turn it off.

Water is essential for plant growth. The CGC and garden leaders want you to be successful in growing your garden and encourage you to use the amount of water needed for plant growth. Following proper watering techniques will result in the best plant growth and production.

Prepared by guest contributor Don Day with assistance from members of the Community Garden Coalition board of directors. Don is a garden leader of the Broadway Christian Church Community Garden

When to Plant Your Warm Season Vegetables

When should you plant your warm season vegetables?

This weekend, May 11 and 12, the Community Garden Coalition will offer warm season plants like tomatoes and peppers to gardeners. See times and other details.

So, we thought we’d take a moment to explain why we chose a date in mid-May despite some long periods of warm weather in April.

Weather in Mid-Missouri is highly variable, as anyone who has lived here for more than a month knows! When gardening experts discuss freeze dates for our area there are two critical time periods. The first is the average frost-free date. The second is the final frost-free date.

Although these dates shift over time, a recent report by Pat Guinan the state climatologist lists April 10 as the average frost-free date for Boone County. However, local factors can impact this. For instance, valleys tend to be cooler than hilltops, and urban gardens are usually warmer than rural ones because all the concrete holds the temperature higher.

The latest frost on record in Columbia was May 9, 1906. That may seem like a long time ago, but we were close to freezing this year on April 27. We want to give our gardeners, especially eager new ones, the best chance for success. Distributing sensitive plants a little later can avoid the sad circumstance of a late frost killing everything.

garden plants protected wih buckets and sheetsHere’s what my vegetable garden looked like in preparation for the cool weather at the end of April. As an experienced gardener, I am a gambler and my heirloom tomatoes were getting too big for my indoor pots. As you can see, protecting those transplants from frost was a lot of work, and not many gardeners are up to that sort of challenge—material and time wise.

Another consideration is that many warm season plants, especially eggplant and peppers, don’t like “cold feet.” They want warm soil to send their roots into, and can become stunted and drop their flowers when temperatures dip below 50 degrees.

It’s always a guessing game to pick the optimum time to plant in mid-Missouri, but these are some of the factors we try to balance when we plan our events. Hopefully the warmer weather will hold for the rest of May and your garden will grow happily.