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Courtesy of Doug Oster

We’ve all noticed some consumer trends during the coronavirus pandemic. Toilet paper is hard to find on store shelves, and so is flour for baking. Interest in gardening is exploding as more people want to grow their own food during this crisis.

Long-time gardening writer Doug Oster talks with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple on this growing trend and how anyone can be part of it.

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: Are you seeing an uptick in the interest of home gardening during this pandemic?

Doug Oster: It’s unbelievable, actually. I’ve talked to a lot of my national sources at different seed companies. I got emails, very short e-mails. They are so busy they couldn’t even be interviewed. The first e-mail that came back to me, it just said ‘victory gardens are back. We can’t keep up with orders.’ So everybody is going to be planting seeds this year. And it looks like everyone’s going to be trying to grow their own food.

KH:  People are talking about victory gardens. Can you just say a little bit of what they are historically, and why people are returning to this idea? 

DO: Now, we know them mostly from World War II, but they actually go back to World War I. People in their own backyards and in public spaces were growing food to take pressure off the food system, and as a way to support the war effort. People now really want to do that, too.

KH: You’re outside gardening pretty much all the time. What can you say about the benefits to your mental and physical health? Especially at a time like this. 

DO: First off, it has always been the ultimate social distancing. Gardening is, for the most part, a solitary practice. And anyone who gardens knows that that time out in the garden is therapeutic. When you see a daffodil come up in bloom, it’s gonna come up and bloom every year, regardless of what’s going on around us, you know, what we’re going through.

So many gardeners find solace in just spending time in the garden. Last night, I got done planting some peas, and I just sat out there and listened to the birds and watched the rabbits trying to get in, and the deer going by. It’s just a place where you can collect your thoughts , and kind of try and put things in perspective.

Tips from Doug:

You don’t have to have a garden to grow vegetables.

Just about anything that we could grow out in our gardens could also be grown in a container. It’s just about picking the right sized container for what you want to grow. A tomato needs a big 15 gallon container, but lettuce you could do in just a little small pot right on the porch.

How much space do you need, or how many containers do you need to grow food for a family?

It depends how big the family is. It depends on what you really want to grow. It’s going to be very difficult for you to grow everything your family needs, especially for beginning gardeners.

Start off with something easy, like some of the greens: lettuce, Swiss chard, arugula. Leafy greens are very easy. Those greens love cold weather.

In my yard, I’ve got a 30 by 40 garden out there. It’s fenced in to keep the deer out. I’m growing probably 200 pounds of produce out of there. And like most gardeners, I give most of it away. There’s only two of us left in the house, so part of the growing is growing for yourself, but part of it is for growing for other people, too.

How can you tell if seeds from last year are still good? 

This is very easy, and something I’ve been talking a lot about. You just take about 10 seeds out of a packet, put them in a moist paper towel, put that paper towel into a resealable plastic bag, like a Ziploc bag, and put it somewhere warm. In about seven to 10 days, take a look at those seeds, and see what percentage have sprouted. If it’s 50 percent or more, I keep them, and I keep planting with that. With less than that, I just put them in the compost pile.

What can you plant over the next few weeks? 

This is prime time for starting seeds. Right now, people indoors are starting their peppers, tomatoes — those late-season crops that love the warm weather.

But you could also be starting anything that will be planted as cool crops: greens, root crops like beets or radishes or carrots. A lot of those you can directly sow into the garden.

Don’t work soil that is too wet.

This time of the year, if the soil is too wet, you don’t want to work in it. If you go in there and use a shovel in the dirt, and it is sticking to the shovel, then that’s too wet. You’re going to change your soil structure, and you’re going to basically ruin it for the year. You get these big clumps in there that persist.

Find medium to plant in, like compost, that you can just put right on top of the bed. Now, if you’re quarantined, you might be able to find compost underneath a thick layer of leaves that have been there for a couple years. You might be able to find some leftover soil in containers. You put that onto the top of the bed, and now you can sprinkle some seeds in there.

Starting seeds indoors:

Light: Anybody can grow their own seeds. The trick for indoors, though, is to have some kind of light source. You might be able to get away with a south-facing window, but it’s better to have like a fluorescent light, or even better, to have a bright LED light that doesn’t use much energy. You put that right at top of those plants, and they will grow nice and stocky.

The number one question I get for starting seeds, for the first timers, is ‘I got the seeds to sprout, but then they get kind of tall and spindly and fell over’ and we call that “leggy.” That’s just from not enough light.

Containers: Starting seeds is simple. All you need is some kind of medium to start them in, which you might have around in pots — and a container with drainage, like old hanging baskets from last summer.

You put in your seeds, and a little bit more of that soil on top of the seeds, and then you cover that with plastic. Wait until they sprout, and then pull the plastic off. The seeds under those lights will go crazy.  

Consistency: When you are planting seeds, get your soil mix to the right consistency before you put the seeds in there. Mix water with it until, when you squeeze it together, it sticks together, but it doesn’t drip. That is perfect for seed starting.

Other supplies that you might need that you can’t your hands on right now:

Peas are one of the crops that we grow really early. They are a vining crop, so they’re going to need to be staked. You could probably just go out to the woods and cut some sticks, and put those in the ground. The peas will grow right up that.

Anything can be a container, as long as it has drainage. I’ve got old garden carts. I’ve got watering cans that have rotted out at the bottom. I just fill those with whatever I can find, the soil that I’ve got laying around here, and then plant in those. You’re only limited by your imagination.

For tips, videos and more, visit Gardening with Doug.