Every time I open my phone, there’s another confirmed Coronavirus (COVID-19) case, or sadly, a death in the Seattle region I call home. Our governor’s declared a state of emergency, and our shops are selling out of face masks, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, bottled water, and milk. People are asking themselves what they can do.
Besides, wash your hands. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
Might I suggest starting a garden? Even starting a small garden in your windowsill.
This garden won’t be a substitute for stocking your pantry — do that and go for the calories — but a garden is good for your mental and physical health. The first burst of a fresh vegetable or herb can lift your mood and the taste of your food. Imagine cutting off fresh cilantro that’s growing in your kitchen and putting it directly on your tacos. (Brag, that’s what I did at lunch.) If we do get put into a quarantine situation, gardening will keep you sane in more ways than one.
Occupy your time and mind.
A quarantine may last for around 90 days. That’s you and your loved ones cooped up together, or you on your own. I couldn’t wait for my partner to go back to work — I work from home — after our two weeks together during the last holiday season.
Gardening takes up time and mental space. It can be as time committed or as strenuous as you make it. But if nothing else, wouldn’t it be better to figure out the germination of a seed instead of the incubation of a virus? Maybe that’s just me.
If you’ve never gardened, or if you’ve been at it a while, there’s always something to learn. Plants are fascinating. You can go down specific rabbit holes, say if you fall in love with herbs, or want to wander around measuring photosynthetically active radiation, or try new skills and new plants.
It relaxes you.
Science says even looking at a picture of a plant will boost your mood. Where’s the nearest plant to you?
Humans used to live in nature, and now many of us live in cities, or places covered in people-created objects. We read studies on our smartphones about increases in loneliness or isolation, and being quarantined isn’t going to make that any better.
Plants may not be a human connection, but they enhance our lives. They create a sense of community and shared spaces. There are even programs combining therapy and gardening or nature walks to treat PTSD. Many people cite tending to gardens or houseplants as instrumental in lifting depression or dealing with the impacts of disability. Even if you can only have one spider plant on your windowsill.
Nurturing someone else.
I’m the first to admit, I’m not a nurturing person. But I love growing and caring for my plants. Including some incredibly frustrating times attacking mealybugs with cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol.
Plants have a path of their own. My hoya pubicalyx loves to climb. I’ve hacked through 12-foot tall sunflowers in October, and I’ve killed an orchid so fast I didn’t get to enjoy the deep purple flowers. You get to know each plant and its quirks.
You cannot control the plant any more than you can control other people. But if you swear at the plant and dump it into the compost, that’s okay. And if you grow so much lettuce you are begging friends to take it, that’s amazing.
Feel goodiness aside, what’s my practicals on starting my garden?
If we’re looking to start a garden and we want to harvest before 90 days, we’re going to need a few things. There are many ways to grow plants. It can be as complicated or as simple as you let it. You can spend thousands designing an Instagram dream garden, or you can buy some pots and soil at a big box store. Most of us are somewhere in-between.
Most plants need four things: sunshine, water, a container or garden spot, and soil.
Where’s your light?
The best light is sunshine. Not all of us have space outside, and in some places, there’s still snow on the ground. Learn your climate zone and when your last expected frost date is for outside plants. The good news is that one of the short-season plants you want to grow, they’ll tolerate some colder temperatures and even light freezing. Make sure your garden light isn’t blocked by trees or buildings.
Some plants you want to start inside and can transplant outside later, so even those with magnificent sunny gardens may still need to start seedlings indoors.
You can grow inside on a southern facing windowsill or buy a cheap grow light to put your plants under. Some of the most accessible grow lights are LED or T5 fluorescents and sold inexpensively at IKEA and Target. Maybe you even get fancy enough to buy a timer to turn it off and on, or just click it on when you get up and off when you go to bed.
Water from your tap or the sky.
Plants can drink the same water as you. My rule of thumb is that my plants cannot drink fancier water than me. If you live somewhere like Seattle, where the water is chlorinated, fill your watering can and let it sit for at least 20 minutes before giving it to your plants. Some people leave it for 24 hours to dissipate everything, but I don’t have that kind of time. And if it comes out of the hose for the garden, all bets are off.
If something awful happens to your water source, in most places, you can probably easily collect rainwater or melt snow to water your plants. That’s what they’d get in nature after all. They might even like it better. Just make sure the water is room temperature to your home, so you don’t shock indoor plants.
A perfect home.
Plants can grow in all sorts of things and all sorts of places. Many of our common houseplants grow (non-parasitically) on trees! That garden spot should be tailored to the sun needs of your plants, and probably somewhere you can easily drag a hose.
Most containers, indoors or outdoors, are there to help we humans bring our plant friends inside or to a place without direct access to the ground. People grow plants in wooden boxes, clay pots, plastic pots, metal pots, recycled cardboard pots, old tires, iMac G3 turned into terrariums, hydroponic systems, and every other Pinterest inspiration.
For your garden, you probably want to start with some pots with drain holes. Drain holes are critical to helping you make sure you don’t kill your plant with too much love, aka too much water. Your plant does not care if you spend $1 on a pot or $100 on an Insta-perfect pot, just make sure the container size fits the plant; like Goldilocks, they don’t want a too big or too small bed.
If you are starting from seed — the cheapest way — you are likely going to want to transplant your plant as it grows. I start my seeds in paper egg cartons with the top removed. Then I either move them to cardboard pots or nursery plastic pots after a week or so, and maybe any container I can find as a tomato plant bursts out, but cannot be put out for several weeks still. In containers, plants need to fit their space; otherwise, they just won’t grow as well.
Soils: just the dirt.
Unless we’re in a dire situation, do not just go and dig up your yard dirt. There are lots of reasons for this, but as Kevin Espiritu from Epic Gardening says, if you spend money on your plants, spend it on the soil.
If you are starting seeds, you want to use a seed starting mix that’s sterile. All the energy to create a seedling is in the seed! It’s called totipotency. I use coconut coir because it’s more sustainable than other sterile soilless mixes.
Now, there are several other types of things sold as soil: garden bed soil, raised garden bed soil, indoor potting soil, topsoil, compost, and all the single ingredients that go in some of those things like perlite, orchid bark, etc. It’s confusing. Some even have built-in slow-release fertilizer.
Here’s what I do: my veggies are eventually all going outside. I use a raised garden bed soil when I pot up my seedlings from their coir start but still have them inside. Garden soil is heavy, and some people believe it brings in or might attract more bugs, which reasonably people don’t want in their homes. Raised bed soil is usually some kind of halfway point between garden and indoor potting soils. I might even add a little compost into the mixture for nutrients. (Compost is fully broken down and processed organic waste, not what I put into my city compost bin or worm bin.)
If your plants are staying indoors permanently — or through their lifespan as many garden foods are annuals — you might choose potting soil. Certainly, use it for your indoor houseplants. But remember, you aren’t relying on your pothos to grow you carrots.
5 plants to grow and harvest in 30 days
Okay, you’ve stocked your pantry and freezer, right? You got the staples out of the way, but you also don’t want to eat only rice and beans every meal. All these plants will give you some harvest in 30 days from seed to your plate. If you are quarantined for 90 days, that’s pretty sweet timing for some fresh food.
Greens — get your lettuces.
All edibles grown in your garden will taste better. But homegrown greens are packed full of nutrients, grow quickly, and most actually prefer a little chillier temperature. Plus, all of them are relatively easy to grow from seed.
And they taste divine. You will understand why those women eating salads in stock photos are smiling. It’s from their gardens!
You can grow lettuces you’re familiar with, like Romaine, but also don’t hesitate to toss in some spinaches, swiss chard, pak choy, mustard greens, arugula, and more. They all taste a little different.
With these, you can also plant a bunch of seeds, thin them out for growing room, and eat the baby greens you thinned.
You don’t have to harvest the whole adult plant. Snip 30% or less of the lower leaves off, without damaging the stalk, and keep the plant growing. If your plants do freeze outside, do not harvest leaves while they are frozen as they will just turn to mush.
If the weather warms and your plant starts shooting toward the sky, it’s going to flower. This will make the leaves very bitter. You can either harvest the entire plant, or let it bloom for the pollinators and eventual seed collection.
A simple dash of herbs.
Okay, if you look at an herb seed pack, the back will not say the plant will reach maturity at 30 days. However, for plants that you use their leaves — cilantro, parsley, basil, sage, mint, etc. — you can harvest some before they reach maturity.
Again, apply the never take more than 30% off the plant. Plus, most leaf herbs are pinched from the top. This means new growth will make the plant bushier. Instead of having a skinny basil, you’ll have one with lots of leaves and a sturdier stem.
There is nothing like chopping some fresh herbs directly onto your dish, infusing them in vinegars and alcohols, or simply smelling them.
Learn to love the radish.
Nothing seems to grow faster than the radish in a garden. Listen, radishes aren’t really my jam, but as a gardener, I’ve learned to love them. Most of us are only familiar with eating the round root part, but there are actually two other edible parts. You already know about the root, but what about the other two?
The greens — radish greens are sharp like you’d expect. You can harvest them, while the root is still forming. In fact, you do want the tender young greens as they get more bitter and a little spiky as they grow. Make a pesto, put them in a stir-fry, or my favorite a radish dal.
Radish seed pods are served in German beer halls instead of peanuts. They taste a bit like the root, but lighter, and add a great crunch to a salad or serve as a great snack. Yes, you do have to wait longer for these to form, but if you leave a couple plants, you’ll find them are plentiful. You want to harvest when they’re young. As the seed pod age, they dry and expand and have the texture of styrofoam. Eat them before then.
The microgreen revolution.
Ever paid more for microgreens in your smoothie or on your salad? Or maybe you’ve just heard about them? Well, microgreens are barely sprouted seedlings. Due to totipotency, you can basically lay seeds out in trays on paper towels, get them wet, and watch them sprout. Then eat them!
Some popular microgreens include sunflowers, radish, peas, and wheatgrass. But you can also do plants like cauliflower, leeks, carrots, and cucumbers. You do have to buy a lot of seed, but good thing, it’s cheap.
Dandelions, they aren’t just annoying.
Okay, you don’t really grow these, you just let them grow. The greens can be eaten in salads or made into pestos and more.
I want to be clear that this one is for people who have yards or know of a space where chemicals aren’t tossed on weeds; dogs don’t go to the bathroom on them; and street water from gross cars isn’t their primary water source.
Forage at your own discretion and risk, and when you are in an urban area, understand urban problems. For example, some people who are unhoused depend on dandelions for food and probably need them more than you.
Most of us can easily identify dandelions, so they pose less of a foraging risk. Eat the young leaves, and leave a few fluffy yellow flowers for the bees.
Gardening is a gift.
Once you’ve eaten a little bit of your own food or nurtured a houseplant, you may find yourself in love with this connection to nature. You may never eat green lettuce from the supermarket again.
Or you may just have more confidence that you can do something more than obsessively refresh your favorite new site or pace around your room with a bottle of hand sanitizer when there’s a global crisis. Plus, you might make some new neighborhood friends, who appreciated you dropping off spinach greens while maintaining social distancing.