Honoring Earth Day with a COVID-19 Victory Garden

A half a century ago, a Senator, Representative, and an environmental activist collaborated on a plan to raise awareness about the negative impact industrial development was having on our environment and on human health. The first Earth Day inspired 20 million Americans to take to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate their concern. Today, the desire to protect the world and defend against climate change is stronger than ever.  More than one billion people from 190+ countries will mobilize with hope, optimism and above all – Action!

As we shelter-in-place for the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, another important historic cultural practice is making a comeback – the Victory Garden! During World War I and II, people pitched into the war effort by planting backyard gardens to grow their own food. Now, as the world faces COVID-19 and fights a major health crisis, growing a garden not only improves wellbeing and saves a trip to the grocery store, it can also help minimize your carbon footprint while greening up your patio, back yard or community garden bed.   

Bay’s resident horticulturist and new caretaker of the school’s garden plot Dani Grant breaks down the basics of gardening into easy steps anyone can follow. Enoy!

A Beginner’s Guide to Gardening

Dani Grant, Garden Master at The Bay School

If you’ve decided to try your hand at gardening or return to an abandoned hobby, congratulations! I’ll admit it, I’m a gardening geek. Growing things can be deeply meaningful and rewarding work, and the good news is anyone can do it! All you need is interest and room for a garden pot or windowsill planter. Or if you’re looking for a bigger project, why not transform that lightly used and lonely patch of backyard into a garden bed? However you approach it, the first step is to consider what you want from your garden.

Step One: Consider your space and goal

Soil: Dig up a little soil with your hand, spade or shovel. Feel it in your hand. Is it hard, like clay? Soft and sandy? Wet or dry? Knowing this information can help you prepare your soil and select appropriate plants for your soil type.

Light/exposure: Keep an eye on the space throughout the day, and note what time the sun hits the space and for how long. Knowing the time of day the space receives light and from which direction it receives light will help you select appropriate plants for your space.

Access to water: Where is your water source? How much time can you devote to watering? Understanding your space’s access to water and your ability to commit to watering will help you choose plants appropriate to your space and availability.

Wind: The Bay Area is pretty windy! High-wind areas, such as apartment balconies and coastal yards, can be difficult spaces for more fragile plants to thrive.

Patio vs. yard: If you have a yard, decide how much of it you are willing to utilize as a garden. If you have a patio with no available soil, consider the amount and types of containers you can utilize in your space, such as ground containers, window boxes, vertical and wall boxes and grow bags. 

What are your goals: What kind of garden do you want to grow? A vegetable garden to provide for your household? An herb garden to supplement your cooking? A pollinator garden to provide food and shelter for endangered insect species? Understanding your garden goals will help you pick plants you are invested in and care about growing.

How much time do you have: Consider how much time you want to commit to your garden. We don’t all have hours a day to commit to gardening — that’s ok! Understanding your ability to carve out time to care for a garden will help you choose plants that work best for your schedule. Not all plants are created equal in terms of how much care they require.

Step Two: Obtain your tools

Although you don’t need a lot to get started, a few economical implements will make tending your garden easy, fun and safe.  

Gloves: Gloves protect your hands from drying minerals and wood slivers commonly found in soil and mulch, as well as saps and resins your plants naturally produce. Some gloves are cotton and some neoprene – choose which is most comfortable for you!

Spade or trowel: Perhaps the most necessary gardening tool, a spade is a small, shovel-like tool helpful for planting, thinning, weeding, and just poking around in your garden. A trowel is similar to a spade, but often flatter and with a sharper or more pointed edge. Trowels are useful for hard soil and edging around your garden space.

Bucket or wheelbarrow: A bucket (or wheelbarrow, depending on the size of your space) is useful for moving dirt and soil amenders, collecting weeds and debris, or harvesting your bounty.

Pruning shears: A useful tool for pruning saplings, shrubs and trees. Even patio gardeners can benefit from an inexpensive pair of shears.

Step Three: Prepare your garden area

Tilling soil: If your soil is hard, dry, or difficult to dig into, it will benefit from tilling before you plant. Tilling breaks up the soil to allow water and air to easily move through it, which is important for plant health and growth. It also makes planting in and working the soil much easier.

Amending soil: If you soil seems too sandy, too clay-like, or very dry and depleted, it may need to be amended. Soil amenders are additives that make your soil more hospitable to the plants you want to grow. They can be composed of organic materials, like manure or worm compost, to provide nutrients to the soil, or they can be composed of inorganic material, like vermiculite, to help sandy soil retain water. 

Containers: If you have a patio or small urban garden, you will want to obtain your containers before planting. There is nothing more frustrating than running out of container space when you still have seeds to plant! Even if you have a yard garden, you may want to containerize some plants, like mint, to prevent them from spreading through and overtaking your garden space.

Step Four: Gather seeds or starts

Seeds: Seeds can be obtained from a number of places such as hardware stores, gardening stores, seed-swaps, friends, family and Mother Nature. Growing from seed is very satisfying, but requires more care in terms of protecting, weeding, thinning and watering. 

Starts: Starts are very young plants that have been planted from seeds or clones in a nursery and nurtured to a sturdier, easier-to-care-for size. Starts can be obtained from gardening stores, plant nurseries, farmers markets and even some hardware stores. Beginning or time-constrained gardeners may want to plant starts instead of seeds to save the time and worry of tending to seed sprouts.

Seeds? Sprouts? Starts?

Annual, biannual and perennial plants: Annual plants live for one year and then die, typically in the fall. Biannual plants live for two years, typically producing flowers and fruit in their second year, and then die. Perennial plants live for several years, and even if they die back in the winter, they will continue to come back each spring. Flower gardeners typically prefer perennials, while vegetable gardeners tend toward annuals. Many gardens contain a mix of annual, biannual and perennial flowers.

Step Five: Plant your garden

It’s time to dig in the dirt!

Planting Seeds: If you buy seeds in packets, the packet will indicate the time of year to plant, soil depth, and any special instructions, like soaking the seeds in water or “wintering” them in the refrigerator before planting. If you obtain seeds from friends, family or Mother Nature, this information is often more difficult to suss out. When in doubt, split your seed quantity in at least half and plant half the seeds indoors in a small pot or even an egg carton filled with soil. Allow inside plants to sprout in a sunny window before transferring outside. If they don’t sprout, you still have half of your seeds to continue experimenting with.

Planting Starts: Starts are typically sold in cartons. A start can almost always be planted in mid-to-late spring, but there are some exceptions. Luckily, The Bay Area has a very mild and forgiving climate that allows for planting and growth throughout the year. When planting a start, dig a hole the depth of the carton. Gently grasp the start at its base (near the soil) with one hand and use the other hand to squeeze the carton and loosen the dirt and roots. Carefully pull the start and its clump of dirt and roots out of the carton and squeeze the clump of dirt to break up the root structure. This part seems scary to many new gardeners, but is an important step that allows the roots to spread out in their new home. Position the dirt and root clump in the hole so that the base of the start (where the start meets the soil clump) is level with the surface of the ground. Fill the hole around the start, taking care not to pile soil around the stem of the start.

Step Six: Grow!

Tomatoes and Zucchini!

Watering: Regardless of whether you have chosen plants that need a lot of water or plants that need little water, almost all plants prefer and benefit from a regular watering schedule. Pick a day or days to water and stick to your schedule! You can adjust the amount of water you give your plants based on their needs. Yellowing, browning and curling leaves can indicate that plants need more water. Yellowing at just the tips of leaves can indicate a plant needs less water. 

Weeding: Many weeds are resource-intensive and can rob your plants of water and nutrients. Others are very successful growers and can crowd out or choke your plants. Some are just unsightly. How often you weed and what you weed is up to you – many gardeners pull up large, showy weeds like dandelion and morning glory, while others find them aesthetically pleasing (and in the case of dandelion, edible!) and leave them be. Some gardeners only focus on one weed that becomes too successful in their garden space, like spurge or clover.  Some gardeners can’t tolerate the presence of a single out-of-place plant in their garden space and will pull up every weed that sprouts. Something to remember about weeds is that you will never be “finished” weeding. New weeds will always come up, so it will save your sanity to decide what amount of weeds you are comfortable with and how many weeds you have time to pull and then stick to your decision.

Thinning: If you plant seeds, it is likely that more seedlings will come up than have space to grow. Plants typically do not like being planted close enough to touch leaves. Overcrowded plants receive less air circulation, less light, less resources and can harbour more pests. You may need to “thin out”, or remove, some plants several times before your garden reaches maturity. Try removing the weakest looking plants and allowing the strongest to thrive. If it breaks your heart to lose your thinned out seedlings, you can replant them in another area of your garden.

Bugs: Most insects are what we call “beneficials”, pollinating and providing other services to our gardens.  However, some insects are considered “pests” because they eat our gardens or otherwise interfere with our garden’s health. There are many safe solutions to dealing with pests. The first, and often hardest, step is identifying the type of pest you are dealing with. From there, it is easy to research safe and effective solutions to managing your pest problem. The internet is a great resource for identifying pests.You can also contact a Master Gardener through the University of California’s Master Gardener Program at mgsmsf@ucanr.edu. And feel free to email me (Dani) with any questions.

Happy planting everyone!