First came the raised beds, three narrow boxes that line the edge of my patio. Then the land came in a large acrid pile, demanding to be shovelled. And last weekend, I brought home trays of dainty little plants that promise a summer of chard, peas, tomatoes, and beets.
The last time my family grew fruits and vegetables, I was a child and most of them nibbled on my father’s strawberry patch. But this summer I am growing my family’s food.
With the prospect of a long and hot season spent mostly at home, my garden has never looked so ripe to grow. I am not alone. Garden centers report an increase in business as homeowners search for ways to grow vegetables, in a spirit reminiscent of the Victory Gardens of the First and Second World War. As Americans face deep economic insecurity, coupled with food shortages and long lines at the grocery store, gardening has taken on a new urgency.
“If you are concerned about Covid-19 and going to stores, you have a lot of control over your own environment in your own garden,” said Janice Parker, director of Janice Parker Landscape Architects in Greenwich, Connecticut.
With a little planning and good soil, planting a garden can pass the time and put food on the table. Here we show you how to start one.
Before starting your gardening project, contact your local garden center to find out if they are open, what supplies are in stock, and what social distancing measures are in place. Most states have declared garden centers to be essential services, but there may still be restrictions or shortages of some supplies.
Chances are you’ll need containers, raised beds (or wood to make your own), fencing materials, and of course plants, seeds, and soil. And if you don’t have a good shovel, gardening gloves, and hand tools, now is the time to get those items.
Some garden centers offer sidewalk delivery or delivery. Others practice social distancing within the facilities. Seeds and other materials can be ordered online, although deliveries can be delayed, and since it is mid-May, time is of the essence.
Join a local gardening group (many can be found on Facebook) and see if anyone in your area is swapping seedlings or supplies they don’t need. Connections can also help you learn skills from seasoned gardeners. “One of the ways people have access to things when things are scarce is that they have a network of friends,” said Carol Deppe, plant breeder and author of “The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Sufficiency in uncertain times.“
The smallest indoor garden
You do not need access to the garden outside. If you have a window, you have room to grow some food, even if it’s just a pot of herbs on the windowsill.
“Even if you don’t have a fire escape or balcony, you can still grow a small garden in your kitchen,” said Leah Penniman, manager of the Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, New York and author of “Farming While Black.”
You could grow microgreens on an empty aluminum tray or takeout container. Punch holes in the bottom, fill it with soil, and place the seeds thickly (kale, kale, mustard, or radish) on top of the soil. Cover the seeds with a damp paper towel and water them daily, keeping the soil “damp like a sponge,” said Ms. Penniman. Once they sprout, remove the paper towel and in about two weeks, you will have microgreens.
A garden for a balcony, roof terrace or fire escape
Plants like tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce, chard, herbs, eggplants, and even potatoes can grow in containers on a balcony, rooftop, or fire escape, as long as you choose the ones that are right for your region of the country.
You should select small, vertical growing varieties of your favorite vegetables. If you are planting a rooftop garden, be sure not to inadvertently block any drainage pipes or gutters. If you are using a fire escape, be sure to keep exit routes clear. Place a trellis against a balcony wall and grow vines, such as varieties of cucumbers, pumpkins, peas, and beans.
“Some vegetables are good for small yards, like Tumbling Tom is grown in a hanging basket,” said Diana Cluff, the plant designer at the Farm in Green Village, a garden center in Green Village, New Jersey. “It is a wonderful cherry tomato. It cascades down.
Choose well-drained containers in any material you like: ceramic, wood, plastic, or a cloth grow bag. Larger pots will be easier to maintain than smaller ones because the soil will not dry as quickly, so choose a container that is as large as possible. Containers with automatic irrigation extend the time between irrigations. Place your containers in a place with full sun before filling them with an organic potting mix. (Once the pots are full, they will be heavy to move.) Place the vines against a wall or railing to make it easier for the vines to climb.
A bed in the garden
Before making your planting bed, choose a location with at least six hours of full sun. If your garden has good quality soil and is free of toxins such as lead, you can dig directly into the soil, remove grass, weeds and roots, and replace the soil with a mixture of compost and potting soil. . But have your soil tested before trying to grow food on it.
If you’re not ready for testing, preparation, and tillage, build a raised bed. You will be able to control the soil, weeds, and if you rent your home, take your box with you when you move out. You can buy ready-made raised beds from a garden supply company, or build your own with wood, nails, and screws. (I ordered my raised bed from a local craftsman who built three narrow ones to fit my small space.)
Put a layer of landscape fabric under your raised bed, and then fill the box with soil. Mrs. Penniman recommends using a mixture of 50 percent topsoil and 50 percent compost. You can also buy bags of organic raised bed soil. Many municipalities give away compost, so ask yours if one is available. An online soil calculator can help you determine the amount of soil you need before buying.
To prevent furry and feathered neighbors from eating your reward before you, put a mesh barrier under the bed and build a fence around it. The fence should be high and strong enough to keep deer, rabbits, and groundhogs away, but it doesn’t have to be a fortress. “People are told to build a much more aggressive fence than they need: ours is five feet tall,” said John Carlson, owner of Homefront Farmers, a Redding, Connecticut company that designs, builds and maintains garden beds.
What to plant
Let your stomach tell you what to plant. If the tomatoes are your jam, double. If you never eat aubergines, it doesn’t deserve a place on your plot.
“It doesn’t do you any good to plant red radishes and then they sit down because nobody in the family likes little red radishes,” said Deppe, author of “The Tao of Horticulture.” “Grow things your family eats.”
Follow the guidelines on the seed packet or on seedling labels to avoid overcrowding, as your plants will need room to spread. Be sure to follow your regional planting schedule, so your plants don’t end up in the soil too early or too late. An online garden planner can help you lay out your garden. Soul Fire Farm has been offering weekly gardening tutorials on its Facebook page. And your local garden center can tell you the ideal time to put plants in the ground, and can direct you to low-maintenance, disease-resistant varieties.
Add a thin layer of mulch on top of your bed to reduce weeds. You can also use a drip irrigation system (can be attached to a garden hose) to facilitate watering. Group your containers so they are easy to water at once with a sprayer, and be sure to water constantly so that the soil does not dry out.
Whatever you do, plant food and flowers that will bring you joy and are easy to grow. “The last thing you need this summer is to be disappointed,” said Parker, the landscape architect. “This is not the summer for disappointment.”