As COVID-19 forces people to stay home and perhaps look for productive ways to use their time, interest in gardening has grown alongside other pandemic homesteading staples like baking bread and raising chickens.
Publications like the New York Times have highlighted the return of the ‘Victory Garden’ as the Garden Resource Program — which provides seeds and transplants (or starter plants) to residents of Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park — has operated on a waiting list this year.
Although people garden for a variety of reasons, this year might be a good time to zero in on food production as your primary goal. After all, getting a solid crop of food that you will actually eat is a way to save money and limit anxiety-inducing trips to the grocery store during a global pandemic. Some key considerations are getting plants in the ground that have a quick turnaround time from seed to harvest, deliver food for the length of the season or produce a lot of calories, even if they take a while to get there.
Here are some tips to help you get started with as little work as possible.
Prepare the soil
Under normal circumstances, this writer would be talking about cultivating and amending soil to create living dirt that will increase fertility for years to come. Let’s leave that for next year. Right now, it’s a good time to limit trips to the garden center, get some plants, seeds, and organic fertilizer, and make a garden bed if you don’t already have one.
Without a rototiller, simply cutting the sod–ideally with a spade–and composting it is probably the best bet. Using a spading fork to gently lift the soil and then a claw tool to break up the top few inches is a good combo, but you may have to make do with an old-fashioned garden hoe or whatever else is at hand. Even a shovel could be used to lift up the soil and break it up a bit, creating channels for water and roots. However, resist the urge to flip the soil, which can invert the layers of fungi and bacteria that make up the soil biome. The most important thing is to break up the soil deep enough to put transplants in the ground or sow seeds. It’s easiest to do this when the soil is slightly moist, but not wet.
If you have compost or can easily get it, add it before planting by incorporating it into the top few inches of dirt or by leaving it on top. The advantage of just leaving it on top of the dirt is that it can serve as a sponge that helps direct-seeded crops germinate. In the absence of compost, plan on adding chicken manure or some other organic fertilizer after seeds have sprouted. Fish emulsion can help transplants establish themselves, and may be used throughout the season if the soil seems especially poor. However, be careful fertilizing fruiting crops like tomatoes after June because too much nitrogen can cause them to continue to grow leaves when they should be setting fruit.
A note on seeds: Last year’s seeds can often work just fine for most crops. Here’s a link showing how long seeds remain viable on average. However, certain plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants need to be grown from starter plants in Michigan because the growing season is so short.
Also, if you’re concerned about soil contamination, you may want to have your soil tested for lead. Although some testing facilities are closed because of the pandemic, Michigan State is offering a supplemental lead test. Lead contamination is mostly an issue for children who may consume soil directly while playing in the garden or when soil is attached to root crops or other vegetables. More information on this topic can be found here.
Plan your garden
Getting maximum productivity in the vegetable garden this year may mean leaning on those crops that make a lot of food in a minimal amount of space. Kale and collard greens come to mind as things that will produce all year with one planting. They’re also versatile. Kale can be eaten raw in a salad, cooked with eggs, turned into kale chips, or frozen at the end of the season. Tomatoes are also delicious and versatile and can be preserved at the end of the year either by canning or freezing.
Other vegetable crops like carrots and potatoes can take a long time to deliver, yet they produce an abundance of food that keeps in the refrigerator or root cellar for months. The same is true for cabbage, which needs time and space to mature but then can be stored or processed into sauerkraut for the winter.
Lettuce, radishes, and brassica mix can be easily grown with mail-order seed and used to fill in between larger plants like tomatoes or cabbage, especially when these are still growing. Try to think in terms of both space and time to get the most out of the garden. Ask yourself, is there room for another crop? And can it be harvested before it’s crowded out? Radishes and arugula are useful in this situation because they can go from seed to harvest in as little as 21 days.
Other good plants for the summer of COVID-19 might be zucchini and other summer squash. Sure, these need a lot of space, but they also grow a lot of food. Winter squash like butternut or delicata also produces a lot and these often keep for months.
With all of these things, make sure you’re growing something that you or your family will actually eat. And maybe grow something for the neighbors as well. There may be no better way to show social solidarity with the people one shares a fence with than by helping them out with free and nutritious food.
Don’t forget to water
Vegetables need about an inch of water a week to do well and if they’re not getting this from the sky, the gardener needs to supply it. Watering earlier in the day is often best from a conservation standpoint, although leafy greens appreciate the cooling action of an afternoon shower. As for recently seeded or transplanted crops, keep the soil moist for the first week or so until the seeds have germinated or the plants have rooted out.
Harvest your crop
Harvesting is often an afterthought for new gardeners, but when food is harvested has a big impact on the way it tastes and how long it lasts. For leafy greens and salad crops, the best time to harvest is in the morning before the heat of the day has set in. Lettuce especially can taste bitter when it’s cut later in the day. However, summer fruit like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants should be harvested in the afternoon.
One rule of thumb here is to harvest when things are on the small side. Beans, zucchini, and salad mixes all taste their best before they get too big. Tomatoes, however, should be picked when they’re red and dead ripe. For a more complete list of how to harvest, check out this link.
And try not to worry if this all seems a little overwhelming. Gardening is a process even in a year like this. A gardener can make a lot of mistakes and still grow food. The important thing is to get started.