Photo by Owen Cherry

Getting close to the earth: learning how to garden

Besides producing fresh fruits and vegetables, gardening can be a fun hobby and stress reducer.

“Gardening during this time of social distancing is a great activity that not only can give you a break from all that you see and hear on the media, but it also provides you practice with a life skill that will benefit your health,” says Jennifer Johnson, a local gardener of four years.

Staying home is a great time to get closer to the earth, and Americans have an interesting history related to gardening. Originating from World War II, Victory Gardens were an effort of the government encouraging citizens to produce their own vegetables and fruit.  “Families were encouraged to can their own vegetables to save commercial canned goods for the troops. In 1943, families bought 315,000 pressure cookers, compared to 66,000 in 1942. The government and businesses urged people to make gardening a family and community effort,” says Claudia Reinhardt of the Ganzel Group Communications, on Wessels Living History Farm. Due to the lockdown created by the SARS-CoV-2, also known as the novel Coronavirus, the popularity of Victory Gardens has returned. 

To get started, a plan is important for what to plant and how much.  Without proper planning, a gardener can easily buy more than what is needed or more than what can be taken care of. Consider the need for soil amendments, gardening tools, and fertilizer as well as fencing for larger gardens.  Starting with a small garden will lead to greater success.

A small planter, a few pots, or one raised garden bed will fit in a small space. Herbs, such as basil, and tomatoes grow well in well-drained pots. “Start with a tiny plot or even just a window box to see if you enjoy gardening on a small scale,” says Rita Radford, Riddle’s librarian who has been gardening since she was young.

While buying plants, keep in mind what you will use and what would just be a waste. If your family has never eaten squash before, do you really want to weed and water squash all summer only to have it rot?

Also, new gardeners should consider how much sunlight the plants will need before purchasing and planting. “Early spring is a great time to plant cooler weather crops such as lettuce, sugarsnap peas, peas, kale, and spinach.  Depending on the variety, radishes can be harvested three weeks after sprouting,” Johnson says.

Next, soil should be carefully considered. “The best soil for gardening has plenty of hummus but drains well, free of big rocks,” Radford says.  Many stores carry potting soil, which can be used by itself or to supplement the existing soil.  Another way to enrich the already existing soil is to add compost. “Composting is a natural process in which small bacteria and other microbes convert yard waste, such as leaves and grass clippings, into a useful organic soil amendment,” says Jerry Baker, known as America’s Master Gardener. “Compost has been used for centuries to improve the physical condition of soil and add nutrients needed for plant growth.”  Compost can be purchased from most gardening supply stores, or it can be made at home with a compost pile, but home-made compost takes months to create, so it wouldn’t be ready for this year’s garden.

According to Baker, if the soil is hard-packed clay, gypsum powder or pellets can help to loosen the soil and improve it. Without amending clay soil, the plants will not grow well. Lime increases soil pH and gives calcium, while bone meal helps with root growth. Garden supply centers such as Young’s near UCC often can provide helpful soil supplement advice.

Heirloom seeds are a good investment as the plant’s seeds can be harvested and saved for next year. Also, people are willing to share seeds or plants.  “If you have a tight budget, think of the people you know who may have extra seeds that they’re willing to share. There are many plants that can be propagated from taking a cutting from the main plant,” says Johnson. “It wouldn’t hurt to ask around for clippings that will produce roots in water. Eventually they can be transplanted into your garden.”  Johnson also suggests, “If you end up with more than you need, then you can always leave them on your neighbors’ doorstep to enjoy.”

Companion planting is also something to consider. “Companion planting is a great way to maximize the efficiency of your garden,” says Amber Kanuckel, in her article in the Farmers’ Almanac. “For almost every vegetable you grow, there is likely to be a beneficial companion plant that will help increase soil nutrients, chase away pests, or provide some other benefit.” Companion plants to tomatoes include basil, marigolds, lettuce, and carrots. Plants to keep away from tomatoes include cabbage, rosemary, peas, and other plants that experience the same diseases as tomatoes. Green beans and cucumbers grow well together, but make sure to keep green beans away from any plant from the onion family so that the bean growth isn’t impeded.

Beans are fun for children to watch grow. “Kids especially love the magic of tiny seeds becoming big plants. Start them with a bean seed in a clear plastic cup which they can plant and watch grow roots and leaves too,” says Radford. “Kids love dirt! Sifting dirt, digging holes, making mud pies and painting with dirt ‘soup’. Encourage them to enjoy the bugs and worms they find. Soon they’ll want to ‘help’ in the garden too. What child doesn’t enjoy watering on a hot day, or picking a big ripe tomato? Make it fun!”

Not only will gardening produce fresh fruits and vegetables to enjoy with your family, but it also creates a great sense of accomplishment plus new memories to cherish.  “Be prepared to get close: close to the earth, close to your flowers and your veggies, and close to your friends and family who you’ll share with,” Radford says.

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