Greenpoint: Gardening in a time of pandemic

Categories: Life & Arts

Our vegetable sprouts are coming up on tables pushed in front of windows. Outside, we are turning finished compost piles, getting ready to spread fertility onto our gardens. The garlic, planted last fall, is coming up and we’ll be putting in carrots and peas by the end of the week — if it doesn’t snow again.

Up here in the North Country, we still have a few patches of ice in the yard. Full planting time is a ways off, but gearing up for garden season is part of the fun.

This year, it seems more and more people are doing the same.

Pandemic, isolation, home schooling — all reasons for people to take on gardening. I know a few people with young children who are planning vegetable gardens, buying seeds and starting plants, as a project for the kids. It’s in part for learning, and in part a way to occupy themselves.

Others who are homebound are doing the same — trying to be more self-sufficient is a normal reaction when you worry about walking into a grocery store.

Maybe staying at home brings out the homesteader in us. Seed sales are up. There’s been a run on baby chicks. And more people are outside constructing or assembling raised beds and mini-chicken coops.

My daughter’s urban roommates are starting seeds in the kitchen. My older sister told me she’s thinking of growing vegetables this year — something she’s never wanted to do herself.

My advice for all new growers is to start small, a sunny patch of ground or a few containers. Planting a garden is one thing, but if you want it to produce you have to maintain it. And that means building up good soil and weeding, and watering if there’s not enough rain, and picking off bugs, and weeding some more. All summer long, and the first half of the fall.

I told my sister to plant some chard and kale in her herb garden, and put a tomato plant and some snow peas in her flower bed. She’s used to maintaining her herbs and flowers, and this way she’ll have a few fresh vegetables to dress up her dinners without having to build a new garden — which for her would involve digging out roots, bringing in compost and building up soil. Anyway, the herbs and flowers are already taking up the few sunny spots in her yard.

When you’re looking for the sunny spots in your yard for a new garden, remember that what is sunny before the trees leaf out might be shade in the middle of summer. If you have a compost pile, only add what is fully finished — that is, what has already turned into beautiful black soil. Or you can get finished compost from a garden store if you aren’t lucky enough to live near livestock.

Even a small garden is going to need soil work if you’re building it in a place where there’s been lawn or other plants. That’s why it’s easier to convert an area where you usually grow flowers to growing some vegetables.
If you’re using containers, bigger is better. You need pots or baskets or buckets, or anything large enough to handle the roots of mature plants.

Last year my daughter planted half a dozen tomato plants in a window box on her balcony — and got half a dozen teeny tiny tomato plants that each bore half a dozen tiny tomatoes. Lettuce might have worked in a container that size, but the tomatoes were just too crowded to grow.

A pepper plant will need a minimum of a 5-gallon container and a tomato plant will need something bigger than that. Buying large pots or half-whiskey barrels is expensive. My neighbor has used old garbage cans, with holes punched into the bottom.

An old wicker laundry basket will work. Or you can build boxes out of scrap lumber to plant in — they don’t have to be fine carpentry, just sturdy enough to hold the soil in place so the plants can grow.

You can start your seeds now in anything — little pots, takeout coffee cups, egg cartons or the plastic containers that mushrooms or strawberries come in. Just have a place to transplant the seedlings when they get big enough.

Growing your own vegetables can be fun — and delicious. Just don’t take on more than you can handle. It’s easier to build a gardening habit with success than failure — and it’s better to have a tiny patch of paradise than a weedy expanse of stunted plants.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on April 26. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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