This article first appeared in the Albany Times Union on April 29, 2020.
Professional organizer Jes Marcy is also an avid gardener. The COVID-19 quarantine has turned many people toward gardening. Jes has advice for the unexperienced.
Are you thinking of starting a garden this year? You are not alone. I attempted to place my yearly seed order a few weeks back and quickly learned that toilet paper is not the only thing hard to come by these days. Seed companies report record-high sales and long backlogs processing orders. Indeed, springtime social distancing is spurring a rebirth of the victory garden.
Backyard gardening has been a passion of mine since my college roommate grew a tomato plant on our patio 20 years ago. Ironically, this passion is not fueled by mastery, but by new and different challenges that are presented year after year. When it comes to growing your veggies, I've learned that you never stop learning.
If you have your seeds in hand but are not sure where to start, read on as I share some of my more significant lessons from the past two decades.
Beware of the allure to plant more.
It happens so innocently. Your growing-tomatoes-for-dummies search leads you straight into the quarter-acre homesteading movement. Suddenly your one packet of seeds seems woefully inadequate, and it looks like that tree in the backyard is going to have to go.
Before you call the tree guy, consider this: You might not even like gardening. New backyard gardeners should start small. There are so many variables that can affect the outcome of your backyard vegetable patch. You can always expand in the future when you have a better sense of the unique advantages and disadvantages or your specific location.
Opt for raised beds.
You have two options with garden beds: dig down into your existing soil, or add a raised bed on top of your lawn. Go for the raised bed. It's far easier to fill a bed with a quality topsoil/compost mix then it is to till, test, and improve the existing soil.
I recommend starting with no more than a few raised beds (max size: 4 foot by 8 foot). Make sure those beds are in a spot that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight during the summer. (And if that requires removing a tree, consider getting a plot at your local community garden for a season first!)
Direct plant seedlings into your outdoor garden bed.
Despite the current rush on seeds, I'd advise any new gardener to fill raised beds with seedlings from a nursery instead. Here's why:
Successfully starting seeds at home requires more than a sunny window and an empty egg carton. Commercial greenhouses use artificial light, added heat, and additional airflow to create ideal growing conditions for seedlings. This process is started months in advance. When it's finally time to bring the seedlings to market, they are transitioned from the greenhouse to life outside (a process called "hardening off"). When you purchase seedlings for your garden, you are purchasing thriving plants that are already 6-8 weeks old.
When you start plants from seed in your raised bed, you will find vegetable seeds germinate and grow at a rate equal to or slower than weeds, leaving you with work to do well before there are any vegetables in sight. When you plant a seedling in your garden bed, you can mulch around the plant immediately, which dramatically reduces weeds, helps to retain moisture and adds essential minerals to the soil.
When you are growing a small number of vegetables, there is no cos -benefit to buying seeds over seedlings. Accounting for time and materials, the difference between a $2 seed pack and $3 ready-to-plant 6-pack of seedlings is negligible.
Always keep your soil covered.
It's hard to overstate the benefits of adding mulch to a vegetable garden. I prefer to use a thick layer (4-inch minimum) of grass clippings as mulch since it's easily accessible, it's free, and gathering it counts as your workout for the day.
Secure your perimeter.
There is an old gardening adage about planting seeds: One for the weather/ One for the crow/ One to wither/ And one to grow. Crows are hardly a problem for the average Capital District backyard gardener, but deer, groundhogs, and neighborhood cats can become quite a nuisance. Consider adding some form of inexpensive DIY protection to your garden. A simple Google search will reveal lots of ideas worth trying.
Plant mini-varieties of vegetables you already love.
Gardening is a game of patience, which can be difficult in a world of instant gratification. Give yourself some quick wins by growing short-season vegetables (like baby salad greens) or mini-varieties of your favorite vegetables (like cherry tomatoes, a mini bell pepper blend, baby beets or small varieties of eggplant or zucchini). Always choose to grow vegetables you already know and love.
Growing your own vegetables can be a gratifying experience that goes beyond the tomato. Enjoying time in the sunshine, nurturing plants, and learning a new skill set are all stress-reducing activities. That's reason enough to start planting!