Gardening is not simple. There are charts and graphs, and all kinds of instructions on what to plant, where to plant it and when. But you don’t need a Ph.D. to pull it off.

“There is so much information out there now,” said University of Maine Cooperative Extension professor John Jemison Jr., who has been gardening for 40 years.

In April the soil water quality specialist teaches Mainers how to get the most out of their own food production. Grow Your Own Organic Garden classes, sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, are held in adult education facilities across the state. Jemison, who runs the Orono Community Garden, strives “to teach people how to grow food effectively.”

While spring is playing coy, what steps can a proactive gardener take now? Let’s dig in.

Write it out: “Planning on a sheet of paper, blocking out the rows is one way to do it. Nothing wrong with it at all. I like to have beds.”

When to start? “There is still frost on the ground in a lot of places: that has to come off and it has to be warm enough for seeds to germinate,” said Jemison. With spring snow showers upon us, conventional wisdom says mid to late May is the safest benchmark for outside planting. He recommends floating row covers if you want to start earlier. “If your soil is healthy, you can start soon.”

Do a test: To find out if your soil is dry and ready to be planted, “form a ball. If it starts to break apart, you can start. It needs to be fluffy and loose so roots can grow through. If you are walking in your garden and see footprints, get out.”

Transplant it: “Even if you have a black thumb, you can grow six-packs of lettuce. Transplants are really, really easy. When you are transplanting, it already has a root system. You don’t have to worry so much about watering. It’s fairly obvious how to plant it.”

Mix it up: Changing what you plant in beds each year is the key to high-yield growth. If you planted broccoli and carrots one year, try something else the next. With the allium family, onions, leeks, garlic and shallots, you need to rotate them to fend off insects, pests and blight that looks ugly.”

Rule of thumb: Root to fruit to leaf to bean. Plant a root crop one year. A fruit crop the next. Example: carrots this year, tomatoes the next. “Mixing families of vegetables is one of the best ways to avoid planting the same family type over and over.”

Take a class: “People come away with an appreciation that food production is doable. To do it well takes training and practice. When you can garden with an experienced gardener it’s helpful,” said Jemison, who encourages students taking his class to volunteer in the Orono garden for hands-on instruction.

Why grow your own? “You value what you grow and you have ultimate control. It’s hard to get much fresher than going snip, snip snip. You can’t beat the freshness factor,” he said.

Grow Your Own Organic Garden classes start April 5 in Hampden and April 6 in Orono. To find a class in your community, visit

Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.