Time to Test Out Your Green Thumb
Get your hands dirty with these tips and tricks for beginners.
Coronavirus “victory gardens” are sprouting up all across NEPA thanks to the warmer weather and extra time at home. Victory gardens—originally a wartime effort to bolster the food supply—have made a comeback as a way to beat boredom and cut back on trips to the grocery store.
When it comes to quarantine hobbies, gardening has become so popular that it rivals baking bread and tie-dying. After all, it’s both relaxing and practical. Think of it like the grown-up version of playing in the dirt, except you get tomatoes out of it. And if you’re searching for fresh, “minimally touched” food options, there’s no better solution than growing your own.
However, gardening takes a lot more than sticking seeds in the ground, sprinkling some water and letting the sunshine work its magic. Any gardener can tell you that it takes time and patience, and you’re always at the mercy of Mother Nature. We turned to the Penn State Master Gardeners of Lackawanna County for their advice on starting a home garden.
Choose and Prepare a Space
First things first, you should consider how much space you have to work with, what kinds of plants you want to grow and how much of a commitment you’re willing to take on. Container gardens (which are grown in pots on a deck or patio) or raised beds (which are grown in a frame that’s raised off the ground) are better options if you’re limited on space. In-ground gardens are great if you have more space or you want to grow plants that take up a lot of room.
“You’re better off going smaller initially and being able to take care of everything,” said Master Gardener Gary White. “You really don’t need a lot of space to grow a lot of food. With a four by eight, if you do it all correctly, you’ll get a great production out of two or three tomato plants or one or two zucchini plants.”
When you’re picking out a space, make sure it gets at least six hours of sun per day and is well-drained. White also recommends doing a soil test, which you can order from your county’s Penn State Extension or purchase at most big-box stores and garden centers. Soil tests measure key nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. Your results will tell you what minerals you should add to the soil to get the most out of your garden.
“Anything natural, from a nutrient standpoint, is always your best bet,” White suggested.
Organic fertilizers can do the trick. Compost is one of the best options because it provides the minerals that plants need and helps aerate the soil. You can make your own or buy it at a garden center.
“Four or five inches of good soil and compost mixture is phenomenal,” White advised.
Pick Out Your Plants
Now it’s time for the fun part. Consider which vegetables you like and whether they grow well in our area. Each vegetable is different, so do some research for specific planting instructions.
“Certain things are easy to seed, and certain things are better to buy as a plant, either at a greenhouse or start your own,” said White.
In the spring, peas, radishes, spinach, lettuce and other salad greens can be planted from seed. These cool-weather crops are hardy and can take the colder temps. They also germinate quickly, meaning they spring up in just a few days. The quick results are always satisfying, especially for new gardeners.
When the weather warms up, you’ll have even more options. Beans, beets, potatoes, summer squash and cucumbers are beginner-friendly crops that you can seed directly in the ground. For veggies like tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and broccoli, you’ll want to start with a plant.
Maintain Your Garden
Even seasoned green thumbs run into inevitable challenges like weeds, pests, disease and weather. No worries if your plants don’t look like the plump, perfect tomatoes and lush, ruffly lettuce you saw in the seed catalogs. Just focus on keeping up with the maintenance to growing the healthiest garden possible.
When you first plant your garden, the neat little rows and freshly turned soil look fantastic… until about a week later, when the weeds start creeping in. Before you even plant, you can do some pre-maintenance and put down a weed barrier. Cut holes in the material for your plants, and the rest will block out the weeds.
“The best way to get rid of them is to never let them start,” White said. “The most effective way is to go out and pull when they start to come up.”
That means go mechanical instead of chemical. White advised against using weed killers and chemical sprays, which can harm the environment and pose a threat to human health. Instead, do it the old-fashioned way and pull them up by hand.
You’re not the only one who likes homegrown fruits and veggies—bugs love them too. Again, it’s healthier and safer to avoid using harsh chemicals and pesticides.
“The best way is to keep a healthy plant so they can tolerate some infestation of pests,” said White. He also recommended picking bugs off manually and putting them in soapy dishwater to manage pests.
Every year brings new challenges, and even experienced gardeners can’t predict which diseases will strike. Once again, try to keep your plants as healthy as possible so they can withstand disease. If your plants seem sickly, do some research to find out the cause and the best ways to treat it.
Most of All, Relax and Have Fun!
It doesn’t matter if you grow one tomato or if you harvest so much zucchini, you have to beg your neighbors to take it. Growing your own food is rewarding, and the time outdoors is sure to relieve the quarantine blues.
“The first time around, it’s a lot of trial-and-error for people. And it’s still trial-and-error for me,” said White. “Be patient with it. Have fun with it. Don’t get frustrated.”
We couldn’t cover everything in one article, but the Penn State Extension Master Gardeners Program offers great resources on just about every gardening topic under the sun. All 10 counties in NEPA have a Master Gardeners program and a gardening hotline, where local volunteers can help answer your gardening questions.