This season gardeners are likely to grow more vegetables at home than at any time in the last century, except for the Victory Garden period of World War II.
No matter how soon or how slowly the Covid-19 crisis wanes, people will want the secure feeling that some food is growing in the yard, and they will probably want to go to the grocery store less frequently than before.
What shall we call these new gardens? Victory Over Covid (V.O.C.) gardens? Whatever you call your project, these tips and answers to common questions should help you to use your time and space well.
1. How much growing space do I need?
Depending on your food preferences, a 10-by-10- or 10-by-20-foot garden is enough for families of two or four. (The average American garden in much of the 1990s was 200 square feet.)
If you build raised beds and plant them intensively, you can grow a lot of food in two or three beds just 3 feet wide and 6 feet long. These sizes certainly don’t allow room for corn plots or great sprawling winter squashes, but they can give you a season of salads and vegetables.
For one person, just a few large planters can keep greens and tomatoes on your table for months.
2. Where should I make the garden or place the beds?
Most food crops grow best in full sun, with the exception of salad greens that do well in shade especially in the heat of summer. Also place the garden where you can manage to water it, and where you will see it. The eyes of the gardener are the best insurance against problems.
3. Can I plant directly into the ground?
If you have hard, compacted soil, or reason to suspect past pollution or contaminants in your yard, then the safest answer is building raised beds using commercial planting mixes or a product called “garden soil” (not just “topsoil,” which can be anything).
If you plan to plant where a lawn or former garden was growing, remove any weeds or sod (stack it for future compost), mix in some compost and plant at soil level.
4. How wide should the rows be?
Single-row gardening is inefficient, wastes space, and leaves too much room for weeds. I recommend wide rows (at least 3 feet) with foot paths between them. You can raise the beds a little higher than the paths (just add compost). Then plant thickly and interplant with herbs and flowers (especially pollinator-pleasing natives), so soil is covered. This layout also discourages walking on the bed.
5. Where can I get soil, compost, plants and tools?
Especially this year I hear worries about getting supplies if garden centers aren’t open. Maybe they will open by the time you need most supplies. (It’s too soon to plant most crops.) Meanwhile, most take credit cards by phone and will bring purchases out to the car. Businesses still deliver sod, soil and more.
Call these businesses. Many have already experienced heavy losses this season – no Plantasia, no Easter and maybe a slow Mother’s Day. They need you for survival. Personally I will not shop online or buy gardening items from box stores, and will support local green businesses and farmers markets.
6. Is there a seed shortage?
George Ball (now with Burpee Seed Co.) reports that seed sales always spike in times of crises, (wars, 1970s oil crises, 1987 stock market crash, dotcom bust in 2000). But “we’re being flooded with vegetable orders now,” he said.
It’s the largest and most widely spread spike he has witnessed. Still I believe that most gardeners will be able to secure most seeds. Check with garden centers, grocery stores, hardware stores and look in your own cupboards.
Many gardeners never plant all the seeds they have. This is a very good time to share extra seeds. (Most older seeds do germinate, even if not 100%.)
7. What should we grow?
This is a very subjective question, with some obvious answers: What do you really eat, and what do you go out to buy most often? The following are popular, high-demand edibles. Try your own favorites, but in all cases read the seed packets or plant tags before you plant.
• Salad greens are easiest to grow (and since they are perishable they require more trips to the grocery store.) So plant some seeds of lettuces, spinach, arugula, kale. Swiss chard, etc., in cool soil this month.
• Tomatoes are America’s favorite “vegetable” (technically a fruit). You can plant seeds in April and plant seedlings outside when the soil is warm (usually late May). It’s easier to buy tomato seedlings in late spring from farmers. Buy a variety of types; notice their expected size and which need supports.
• Carrots are fun, but require deep, prepared soil.
• Peas are easy (from seed) in early spring, followed by beans when the soil gets warm.
• Squashes are easy to grow from seed, needing warm soil (Memorial Day), and some space. Summer squash and zucchini are prolific. Winter squashes do sprawl but make a great, late harvest. Cucumbers are another vine crop that need to climb or ramble.
• Peppers and eggplants also require warm soil; plant seedlings in late May.
• Potatoes are a staple, and fun to grow. Choose varieties that are locally available (many more tasty than grocery store choices.)
• Fruit: It’s a large topic for another day, but I recommend raspberries for every garden as delightful and expensive in the store. Analyze if you have room for them and what they need.
8. What about pests?
If you have deer or rabbits in your area, put a fence around the garden. Attract beneficial insects (that help to manage pests) and pollinators by planting flowers in and around your vegetable plants. Do not spray pesticides – for your health, and for the health of insects and birds. Well-tended plants in the right soil and right location will mostly thrive.
Gardening takes a bit of learning and effort, but the rewards are great.
Victory Over Covid – go for it!
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.
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