Gardening in the Time of Covid-19

Garden plot west of Bloomington. May 2020 (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/The Bloomingtonian)

By Kathy Teige – The Bloomingtonian Garden Columnist

Sheltering in place, we hear or read about the possibility of food shortages. As we’re in the prime season for starting gardens, you may have decided it’s time to plant a vegetable garden. It’s a great idea! Not only do you get edibles, but many find gardening to be a great stress reliever. There’s also research suggesting that close contact with dirt, and the microbes therein helps improve your immune system.  However, before tearing out your entire yard, you need to think about a few things:

  • What kind of light does your planned garden spot receive?
  • How is your soil?
  • How much work will this be?

Is your yard in blazing sun, deep shade, or some combination of the two? Having 6-8 hours of sun is required for many vegetable plants: certainly, for the tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, and other plants we grow for their fruit, aka seed containing bodies. Those plants whose leaves we eat, such as spinach, lettuces, and many other greens, will do fine with 3 hours of sun.

I often hear people complain about their shady yards. Upon further investigation, though, we discover that they have a spot under the south or east side of a tall tree that, in fact, gets at least a few hours of direct sun, or a full day of dappled light shade. While working from home, you have an opportunity to check the sunlight falling on your yard. Check at least once every hour. You may well find that you have a sunnier yard than you thought you did.

Next, check out your soil. You’re looking for two separate, but related qualities: composition and drainage.  Most soil in the Bloomington are is composed of clay, with more or less humus (dark, crumbled organic matter), depending on your area. Clay is both a curse and a blessing. It is often chock-full of mineral nutrients and is good at retaining moisture. However, this moisture retentiveness can be too much of a good thing. Soggy plant roots are unhappy plant roots. Moist, good; constantly soaked, not good.

The best way to check this is simple. Dig a hole about 12 inches deep with a 12-inch diameter. Fill the hole with water.  Check to see how quickly the soli drains. If you still have standing water after a half hour, you’re going to need to deal with the drainage. Generally, you’ll need to add organic material (compost, peat moss) and coarse sand. You don’t have to work in tons and tons of these, but the more you improve your soil, the more successful your garden will be. Raised beds can alleviate some drainage problems, but it’s important to remember that roots grow down. If you want great carrots or tomatoes, putting a 6-inch-deep raised bed over great clods of dense clay is not enough.

Finally, consider how much work you’re willing to do to grow some vegetables. A lot of newbies engage in an orgy of labor at the beginning of their gardening project. Removing sod, digging up the dirt, adding soil amendments (the compost and sand discussed above), hilling soil, planting seeds or baby plants; all this is hard work. If you’ve never done this before, you’ll discover all the little muscles in your back that you didn’t know existed. This is all very exciting and gratifying, but the work doesn’t stop now.

Gardens must be tended, often when it’s really hot and humid outside. Weeds will grow and must be pulled.  Vegetable plants are thirsty and must be deeply watered at least twice a week or more. Tomatoes must be staked or caged, and pruned or trained accordingly. Bugs must be managed (plucked individually or sprayed with soapy water, sometimes daily). All this is not said to discourage anyone, but it’s important to know up front that a garden is a commitment. It’s wisest to start out small. Here in south central Indiana, we are blessed with an average growing season of 189 days. If you start small in April, and decide you’re willing and able to handle more, you may continue to add to your garden’s size well into mid-summer.  And into the fall you could always prepare new beds this year for next year’s garden. I’m known to be out digging until the ground freezes in late December.

I find the old saying, Gardening is cheaper than therapy, and you get tomatoes to be absolutely true.

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