For Non-Gardeners: No Excuses! The Pandemic’s the Time!

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Now is the time to face reality that a tiny virus has turned our world upside down. Get ready for some big changes, especially in our food systems. The US is starting to experience a “hungry crisis” with food banks running out of food and some basics (like potatoes) in short supply. Small farmers are struggling because restaurants and farmers markets are closing. Two steps you can take NOW: find a way to buy produce from small-scale local farmers and get out of your house and start growing some of your food.

Starting a garden in a time of “lock down” is an excellent way to relieve anxiety. It will help you feel that you are starting to take control of things. The reasons to grow your food now are obvious: pending food shortages and rising food prices. Homegrown produce is tasty and healthy and supplements the other parts of your diet. And, as a food producer, you will be part of a new sustainable local food system.

Gardening needs not to be complicated or difficult, if and only if, you really set your mind to it. Here are some simple guidelines for starting:

  1. keep it simple – start out with three or four vegetables and learn about them as much as you can. Seed catalogs are very helpful. (Redwood Seeds, Territorial, High Mowing, Johnny’s, Peaceful Valley)
  2. learn from more experienced gardeners, friends, neighbors who grow food.
  3. follow the 4 Rs to keep costs low – reuse, repurpose, recycle, repair.
  4. plan – choose the vegetables that you especially like to eat, that are easy to grow and those you can store, can, dry or freeze. Try experimenting with one or two new varieties each year.

For those who have never gardened, I’ve answered all your excuses:

  • No space:– a 10 x 10 space will grow about $700 worth of veggies. Replace some of your expensive non productive lawn with an edible garden.
  • No ground, only patio or cement sidewalks: Build 4’x8’x2′ boxes on top of cement or use straw bales (go on line to see how) or use big pots on patios.
  • Bad soil, garden space has bad soil; too rocky or all clay: Build beds on top of existing ground by adding compost and manure and/or make “fertility holes” by digging out the rocks and filling the hole with compost and fertilizer.
  • Don’t know how: Experience is a good teacher. So, finding a garden mentor is a fast way to learn. Books and seed catalogs are useful references, not teachers. From the internet you can learn how to start seeds indoors, how to transplant, direct seed, water, fertilize, compost and mulch.
  • Live in apartments: Join the nearest community garden or organize one for you complex.
  • Too expensive/No money for fences or water pipes: Cooperate with others in the neighborhood or join a community garden.
  • Too much shade or sun: Learn what grows in shade (like lettuces, spinach, chard, etc.) and hot weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, squashes etc.
  • Too old or ill to dig in the garden: This is my problem, so I work with neighbors, hire youngsters and relatives.

If I haven’t covered your excuse, send it to me. Maybe, we together can come up with a solution.

Wayne Kessler
Following his grandfather's advice, "Grow food. People always need food," has led Wayne to a lifetime of cultivating and processing food. He spends much of his time encouraging people to become more food independent by growing their own.
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21 Responses

  1. Avatar Cris says:

    Good to hear from you Wayne! I personally prefer Redwood seeds, local and family owned/run. Good people. Great article thank you!

  2. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    I spent all day yesterday whipping my veggie garden into shape. I have six 4 ft x 8 ft raised beds, two of which were already growing cool-weather crops, one with a variety of cane berries, one dedicated to perennial herbs, and two that are now ready for planting. Two have trellises for climbing beans, peas, and cucumbers. I plan to add a few 4×4 beds in the coming week as well.

    Yesterday I picked up an order of peppers, heirloom tomatoes, and basil from the McConnell Arboretum. They’re not having their annual Spring Plant Sale this year, but you can order plants online (they have a list of available plants, including lots of native and drought-tolerant ornamentals) or order by phone. You pick them up at an appointed time—one pick-up every 15 minutes. The Arboretum staff will impress you with their dedication to social distancing.

    Some hard-earned advice: (1) If you’ve never grown tomatoes before, make sure at least half of your tomato varieties are hybrids that are resistant to disease, particularly verticillium wilt. If you have verticillium fungus in your soil, you’ll watch your heirloom tomatoes die horribly. It’s a huge bummer losing your entire crop. (2) If you have gophers, I strongly recommend thick-gauge galvanized metal screen or hardware cloth below raised beds. I have literally watched plants shaking and then falling into a hole. Whoever came up with that cartoon cliché had watched it happen in their own garden. (3) In this area, you can’t go away for a week of vacation and come back to a thriving garden that hasn’t been watered while you’re away. Invest in a timer and drip system, or have someone water for you in your absence. Your plants may not die from the stress of not being watered for a week, but production will suffer. Sometimes plants will say, “Peace out…I’m done for the summer” when they get water- and heat-stressed. (4) Don’t over-water, especially with tomatoes and peppers. (5) If you live out of town, think about a deer fence. I’m building one this year after years of feeding deer. (6) Dry-farmed watermelons are amaze-balls. Find a spot where they can ramble, put them in the ground, and don’t water them once they’re established. (I only had one of four plants survive last year—see “deer fence” above.)

    Wayne is right—experience is the best teacher, and you’ll find that you’re good at growing some things, but not others. For example, I can’t grow an edible artichoke to save my life—mine are tough, leathery, and inedible except for the heart. I blame it on the heat. But they do provide gorgeous thistle flowers once I give up on them and just let them go.

    • Thank you, Steve, for the great tips. You made me laugh to visualize plants shaking and disappearing below the soil.

      I’m planning on having some raised beds built in my back yard, and will take your suggestions to heart.

      Thanks for the information about Turtle Bay and the Arboretum plants. Nice to know!

      Good luck with your garden, Steve, and your battle with deer and gophers.

  3. Wayne, this is such a timely, helpful article! Thank you! I’m a successful herb-grower, but I have been unable to grow vegetables to save my life, especially tomatoes, which end up cracked, with plants consumed by those disgusting fat, green worms.

    But I’m going to give gardening a go again, inspired in part by you. Stay safe, Wayne. Keep up your good work.

  4. Avatar Mitsy Marx says:

    Redding has a year ’round garden growing climate. If food ends up being scarce, winter will be the worst. Plant your winter veggies in a timely fashion (I recommend mid-August) that will give them time to get established BEFORE the cold and dark of winter. Plants like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, spinach, Swiss chard, collards and peas will usually overwinter well and the collards, kale and Swiss chard will produce ample amounts of nutritious greens.
    Carrots and beets can be left in the ground past their usual pick time for winter eating too. Carrots won’t be good fresh but they cook up delicious!
    Grow winter squashes that will keep for months during winter when stored properly.
    Get some Jerusalem artichokes for true emergency food. The tubers are nutritious and they grow like weeds.
    Get started now. Get your seeds and get ahead of the learning curve.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      Cool! (No pun intended, but there it is.) Great advice. I’ve never really mastered the timing on winter crops—I always start too late or plant them in the spring when they mature just in time to shoot and then get baked.

      • Mitsy, what an honor to have your expert garden advice here. Thank you! Feel free to enlighten us any time!

        • Avatar Mitsy Marx says:

          Thanks, Doni. You’re making me blush. ? I am going to be kicking in the garden savvy big time this year and practice what I preach to have something edible year ’round. My flowers are pretty but they don’t fill your stomach. I’ve replaced my 40 year old rototiller, dusted off my boxes of seeds and planting trays and getting busy!

  5. Avatar LeRoy says:

    Many folks have already thought about this as looking for potato seedlings none to be found! Wintour gardens sold out, my online organic supplier sold out. Curse this virus for messin with my garden plans!
    Try to buy some baby chicks. Better get there early. Folks are counting on some more eggs and chicken dinners than usual. At least I found some toilet paper but I am not saying where!

    • Uh oh. Shoot. That’s a bummer about the seed shortages.
      Am I totally crazy to have planned on buying established vegetable plants, such as at Lowe’s or Home Depot?
      (Glad you at least found TP!)
      Hang in there!

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      LeRoy — If you buy organic potatoes from the store you can use them as seed potatoes and it works great. (Non-organic potatoes are sometimes sprayed with a sprout inhibitor.). You cut each seed potato up so that there’s at least one eye on each seed piece. Plant with the eyes facing up about 4 inches deep.

      You’ll find seed potato producers online advising against using anything but seed potatoes, but that’s self-serving bullpucky.

  6. Uh oh. Shoot. That’s a bummer about the seed shortages.
    Am I totally crazy to have planned on buying established vegetable plants, such as at Lowe’s or Home Depot?
    (Glad you at least found TP!)
    Hang in there!

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      Wintour Gardens still has a decent selection of starter veggies as of yesterday. I’ll mention again McConnell Arboretum—you order online and pick up at a scheduled time. Lastly, this weekend Shasta College Horticulture Department (which has canceled its annual Spring Plant Sale) is transporting 10,000 plants to Providence International’s greenhouses at its Riverland Park facility. My understanding is that Providence will inventory the plants and put them up for sale on their website for scheduled pick-up, much like the Arboretum.

      • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

        Regarding Wintour (and I assume Big Box garden sections): The staff are doing their best to maintain social distancing, short of only allowing 20-25 people inside at a time (which they really should consider). Maybe 50% of the customers are trying. A good third of the customers aren’t even trying to keep their distance from others who clearly are trying—as if they need to be @$$holes to make a point. Be warned.

        • Avatar bruce vojtecky says:

          There are a lot of @$$holes out there including Chicago’s Democratic Major who shut down all barbers and hair saloons and proclaimed “getting your roots done is not essential”. Then she went to a hairstylist for a trim.
          The rules only apply to us little people.

          • Avatar Gary Tull says:

            You know it’s bad when folks can’t get their roots trimmed while enjoying a nice lager. :~)) ….I’m bored.

  7. Avatar LeRoy says:

    Steve- you are right about the organic spuds but grocery stores are still in short supply.
    Wintour is my choice of starts but they had almost none in the spud section. I will hit them up early in the week. Thanks

  8. Avatar Common Sense says:

    Spot on Brother Wayne! I just got my shipment of Seeds from our “Local” Redwood Seed Co in Manton…..Love those seeds and what those incredible people stand for. The Real Deal right there!

    With the Possibility of having supply chain issues in the Produce area this year with all the uncertainty and not enough workers getting across we might all benefit for some “Growing our Own”!

    To Healthy plants and sharing some with friends and Family.

  9. Avatar Viktoria Peterson says:

    Grateful to see all this wonderful gardening info! Usually I have more seeds in the packet than I use. So wondering if there are others who would trade their left over seeds? Or if someone planted too many of one veggie and would like to see the extras go to a good home. Thanks!

  10. Avatar Chad Magnuson says:

    OK, you guys talked me into it.
    I’ll start another garden immediately.
    Even though I’m not much of a been thumb, there remains a lot of satisfaction watching plants grow.
    Ive had many gardens which never produce satisfactory veggies. Very sad. Can’t even grow good tomatoes. Although I did have good success with a couple of marijuana plants.
    I’ll start small.
    A couple of tomato plants, some zucchini maybe a pot plant or two.

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