This year, a vegetable garden may also provide one thing we seem to be lacking at the moment: control over our lives. It includes the satisfaction of raising nutritious and delicious food, exercising outdoors while socially distancing, relieving pressure on the nation’s food supply system, passing essential knowledge on to our children and growing extra to share with others. At the very least, it’s a constructive distraction in a confined environment.
You can think of it as a Doomsday Garden; I prefer to regard the spring 2020 plot as the Stick It to the Virus Garden.
Experienced gardeners are expanding or adjusting what they grow, and novices are keen to get digging. Seed companies are seeing unprecedented levels of demand, and social media hasn’t been this full of horticultural zeal since Michelle Obama put in her White House Kitchen Garden in April 2009.
The idea of securing food this way echoes the victory gardens of both world wars, though if you were to look at a World War II victory garden, you would see fundamental differences in how we garden today. We are (or should be) far less reliant on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, we use mulch against weeds and soil drying, and we have vegetable varieties with better traits and ones that are far more multicultural and interesting.
Here are some general principles for a vegetable garden aiming for self-sufficiency, which should include herbs as well as flowers for pollinators and good cheer.
Choosing a site
Few people will have enough suitable land to become totally or even mostly self-sufficient. Optimally, you would want a garden with a quarter-acre or more in growing area, intensively gardened, and with a henhouse for eggs. Tending all this would be akin to a part-time job.
If you’re interested in canning and pickling produce and storing root vegetables, you will need a larger garden than one just used seasonally.
Unless you are a seasoned gardener, forget the perfect survival garden for now; start out small so that you are not overwhelmed. You can always enlarge it as you grow as a gardener.
You need paths separate from growing beds to avoid soil compaction. An ideal, modular growing bed is eight feet by four feet — this permits access without stepping into it — and in normal times might be framed in lumber to allow for efficient raised-bed cultivation. Sally McCabe, associate director of community education for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, notes that such a bed would be formed from three 8-foot boards — about the maximum you can fit into a car — with one board sawed in half. You may want to forget the boards for now; just mound up the growing bed and keep off it.
The paths should be at least two feet wide but not much wider, because you are then robbing yourself of growing area.
In thinking about the appropriate size of the Stick It to the Virus Garden, McCabe has a scale of 1 to 10, from an apartment dweller with a windowsill at the low end to a budding farmer with five acres at the other. She’s more interested in the land-poor range. You can grow sprouts on your windowsill. She has several containers of sprouts grown from bags of dried lentils and beans from the grocery store. “If you combine that with rice and beans, you’ve got everything covered — starches, proteins and fresh vegetables — and you can live off that,” she said. “You’ll get really bored, but you can live off that.”
The next step is to grow herbs in containers; those will spice up any dish. If you have a patio or tiny backyard, you can grow a variety of greens and herbs.
One place to find real estate is the lawn, or a part of it. “It’s hard work to turn a lawn into a garden, because the grass is tenacious and the soil is probably ridiculously compacted,” McCabe said. “But you go with what you’ve got.”
Converting the front lawn into a veggie garden can run afoul of neighborly sensibilities, if not homeowner association and municipal rules. But McCabe believes the current emergency warrants such action. “People need as much fresh food as close to home as they can get,” she said.
A few other site considerations:
Sunlight: A few leafy veggies and herbs will take partial shade, but for a garden to be successful, you must have at least six hours of direct sunlight daily, typically afternoon light.
Slope: A sloping site requires some sort of terracing to prevent erosion, and the steeper the incline, the larger the challenge.
Water: You will need access to water. In summer heat, plants may need watering daily. The problem with rain barrels (apart from mosquitoes) is that they are dry when you need water the most. Also, position growing beds away from areas with poor drainage.
Soil: Ideally, you would build the soil with compost, leaf mold and other organic material before planting a garden. This year, access to off-site soil amendments is difficult, and you may have to work with the soil you have. There may still be many fallen leaves around to gather and incorporate into the soil. Start a compost pile.
Fencing: If there are deer in your neighborhood, you will need to exclude them before you start the garden. Plastic mesh fencing attached to metal stakes is cheaper and easier to install than post and wire fencing, though it will be flimsier and less permanent. You will need at least a 6-foot barrier, and preferably one that is 8 feet high. A 6-foot fence around a garden adjoining the home should be sufficient, as long as the building doesn’t create too much shade.
Timing and vegetable choices
In many parts of the United States, including the Seattle area, the resourceful gardener can extract annually three overlapping growing seasons, especially with protective covers early and late. These would be, roughly, March to June, May to September and August to November. The first period would include leafy greens, such as lettuce, arugula, mesclun mixes; broccoli, cabbage, kale and chard; root vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, beets and radishes; and hardy herbs, such as parsley, cilantro, rosemary, oregano and thyme.
This is a good time to put in baby onion bulbs — sets — and leek seedlings, if you can find them, though both can be grown from seed if necessary. Seeds, tools and supplies are available from online retailers, and many garden centers, where permitted, are offering curbside service to minimize customer contact.
By mid-spring, as frost danger passes and the soil warms, you are at the start of the second season, when you can put in tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and basil, as transplants. Cucurbits such as cucumbers and winter and summer squash can be directly sown into prepared beds; they will soon sprout, but have supports ready. If you have the space, this is the time to sow sweet corn, okra and sweet potato slips.
Mid- to late summer offers the chance to prepare for the fall garden, with loose-leaf and heading lettuce, Asian greens, kale, collards, turnips, more carrots and arugula and mesclun mixes. Beans transcend all three periods and can be sown in mid-spring and then every two weeks or so until August for a successive harvest into fall.
The smaller the garden, the harder each vegetable has to work to earn its keep, and those that offer a lot of caloric value tend to need more time and space. I am thinking of potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and winter squash. You can grow potatoes in containers (as long as they drain and you can build up the soil or mulch as the tubers grow).
I also group plants by the timespan between planting and harvest, which helps to prioritize the space available. Some of the quickest are loose-leaf lettuce and other leafy greens, especially if you take them at baby stage — as soon as 30 days after sowing. Radishes are swift, as are many Asian varieties — Chinese cabbages grow more quickly than traditional heading cabbages, for example. Beets and carrots are reasonably fast if grown well.
Most other veggies take half the growing year or more. I am still lifting parsnips that I sowed as seed 12 months ago. The gardener with the long view and spare room will plant an asparagus bed, and have places for strawberries and rhubarb. You will wait two or three years for a good crop of raspberries, blackberries, currants and blueberries. By then, we hope, the coronavirus will be a dark memory, but its lessons, including the need to live in a more contained way, will linger.
There are many instructional videos online, some of them of dubious value or promotional. The Maryland Home and Garden Information Center has some useful videos on pests and deer fencing, as well as an article on starting a garden.
McCabe has a five-part video series on garden basics, “Food for the Soul,” available on the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s website.
A nonprofit group named Good Gardening Videos collects and curates videos it deems valid.
An ad hoc group called the Cooperative Gardens Commission is seeking to match those with seed, tools and knowledge with others in need. Nate Kleinman, an organizer based in Elmer, New Jersey, said, “We know there is a high failure rate for first-time farmers and gardeners, and we want to be able to connect people to the resources they need to be successful.”