Pandemic Gardening

A border garden, with trellis.
You don’t have to garden in the middle of your yard.

It’s been quite a while since I posted anything on my blog, but now that I hear that people are stockpiling not only masks and toilet paper but garden seeds, I thought it might be useful to share some info with newbie gardeners.

My grandparents grew a Victory Garden during WWII, and during the Depression before that. For them it was not a big deal. My grandfather was a farm boy and continued his tradition on a smaller scale after he moved to the city and took a factory job. And as I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog, most of suburbia used to be farmland, so why not take it back?

So now we have Pandemic Gardens, and the epidemic has providentially hit us right at planting time. So if you are a beginning gardener, here are some tips.

Start small.

The urge to buy a packet of seed from every vegetable you have ever eaten is entirely understandable. However, starting a garden from scratch is work. Sod will not turn itself into a garden all by itself, and chances are, if this is your first gardening attempt, that your body is not attuned to that level of physical labor (gym rats may feel free to ignore this comment.) But even if you are a finely-honed physical specimen, a garden requires daily attention that needs to be squeezed into your existing schedule, and the bigger the garden, the more maintenance it will require. Consider talking to friends and neighbors about specializing and swapping produce. You grow tomatoes, he grows collards, she grows green beans. Properly cared for, gardens can be hugely productive.

Don’t over-plant.

There’s a style of gardening called Raised Bed Intensive, which crams plants together and produces huge yields. However, it requires serious applications of compost, which, as a beginner, you don’t have, plus soil amendments like blood meal, greensand, and rock phosphate. Also, in my experience, the giant yields are a year or two down the pike, so when planting this year, respect the guidelines on the seed packets. You might even plant things a bit further apart to reduce competition. For example, we have a friend who plants a dozen tomato plants each year, two feet apart, in a row. They each get about 2 feet tall. We plant two tomato plants each year: a paste tomato and a slicer. They get planted at opposite ends of a 20 foot long bed, outgrow their tomato cages and produce more than twice as much as all his plants combined.

Plant in beds, not rows

You have to leave walking space between the rows. This means 1, that most of your garden is paths, and 2, that you are walking on the roots, compacting the soil and making life difficult for your little green babies. Make your beds twice as wide as your reach (4 feet works for most people) and leave a couple of feet between beds for access. By all means, plant in rows within the beds for optimal spacing and a tidier appearance. (Neighbors, oy!)

Grow the easy stuff.

Some plants are just pickier than others, requiring more consistent watering, and some need special handling.

Easy

Lettuce, mesclun, spinach, tomatoes, cabbage, squash, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, collards, kale, broccoli, hot peppers, garlic

More demanding

Onions, celery, cauliflower, bell peppers, melons, carrots

Grow up!

This is not a judgement on your character. This is a suggestion that you build a trellis and train your vining crops to climb it. A row of pole beans will outyield a row of bush beans any day of the week.

This set of beds is tucked in between the fence and the end of the driveway.
Yes, a fence counts as a trellis.

Buy sets, rather than seeds for the warm-weather crops.

If you’re starting tomato seeds now, you’re about two months late. The baby tomato plants will magically show up at your local hardware emporium or garden center at just the right time to be planted. 

Warm weather crops include tomatoes, squash, cukes, sweet potatoes, and peppers.

90% of gardening is maintenance.

Check daily for soil moisture and water as needed. You can stick your fingers in the dirt or buy a moisture meter.

Look for bugs and little green caterpillars munching on your plants. The quick and dirty way to deal with them is a spray of water hard enough to knock them off the plants. Consider buying diatomaceous earth or using wood ash if you have access to it. (Not the ash from charcoal briquets, which frequently contain petroleum-based accelerants.) Sprinkle some around the base of the plant and on the leaves. You can also make a home made repellent spray: 1 TB cooking oil, 1/2 tsp liquid soap, 1 quart water, a couple of cloves of garlic, crushed, and 1TB ground cayenne or other hot pepper. Shake well and let stand overnight. Strain out the solids. You don’t need to buy a sprayer. Just hold on to the spray bottle next time you run out of Febreeze or Windex. Wash it out well and use that to spray. (And it’s a good idea to wear some eye protection and maybe a long-sleeved shirt when spraying hot pepper juice. Just saying.) Japanese Beetles are a special case. If you find one, run to the hardware store and buy a pheromone trap.

You’ll also need to deal with weeds, and the best way to do that is early and often. This does not mean rise at dawn. This means pay attention and zap them when they’re small and have little, tiny, tender roots. Big weeds will fight back. And there’s another technique that nearly eliminates weeds:

This garden makes use of a corner of the yard, out of the way of the rampaging dog, and utilizes the shed as a trellis support for green beans.
Mulch is your friend. Also note the trellis attached to the shed eave.

Mulch

A neighbor once said to me, “Mulch! That’s so expensive!” Meanwhile her husband was piling a dozen bags of grass clippings on the curb for the trash truck. If you live in suburbia, you have a lawn. If you have a lawn, you have a weekly supply of grass clippings. Keep a layer about 3 inches thick around the bases of your plants and the weeds don’t stand a chance. You will probably need to replenish every week or two. They shrink as they dry and very quickly decompose into topsoil. Any leftovers can go into the compost heap. If grass clippings are not an option, sheets of newspaper will work. Just make sure you use only the black and white pages. Colored inks are toxic to plants.

There are more hints and tips on my blog. Feel free to explore.

Any questions? Ask them below.

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