Gardening in the time of coronavirus

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Local garden centers still have a good supply of seeds, like these at Osborne’s Agway. Photo/Kathy Staub

MANCHESTER, NH —The coronavirus has disrupted our lives in so many ways. Forcing people to stay at home, disrupting our supply chains at the grocery store, and making us all feel a little powerless.

With the arrival of Spring and lots of folks looking for something to do, it is not surprising that some people are considering starting a home vegetable garden, many for the first time. Emma Erler, the Education Center Program Coordinator for UNH Cooperative Extension says that they are receiving lots of calls from first-time gardeners.

“My best advice to these first-time gardeners is to be realistic about what you can take care of, ” Erler advises. First-time gardeners should start small or consider using a few containers. “I hate to see people waste a lot of money early and not be able to keep up with it during the summer,” she adds.

UNH Cooperative Extension hosts a website with informative technical guides on a variety of topics. They also have a hotline program that allows home gardeners to connect with master gardeners via phone or email and get help with problems or answers to questions.

Erler believes her choice of a career in horticulture stems from her experience starting seeds with her mother and helping with the family garden. With children home from school this is a good time to teach them about how plants grow and where their food comes from. 

“Letting your children pick out a packet of seeds or a flat of plants gives them a stake in the garden and they are more likely to eat and enjoy vegetables when they have a part in growing them,” Erler says. She notes that large seeds like squash and cucumber are easier for young children to handle. 

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Kathryn Staub Attachments 2:59 PM (8 hours ago) to me A sign at Osborne’s Agway encourages patrons to used curbside ordering or maintain “social distancing” in the store. Photo/Kathy Staub

Finding what you need

Planting a garden is a time-sensitive endeavor. Planting needs to happen in a narrow period in the spring. Acquiring necessary equipment and supplies during this period of “social distancing” might seem like a challenge for a novice gardener. However, garden centers were deemed essential in Governor Sununu’s Executive Order shutting down non-essential businesses. Most local garden centers, as well as home centers like Home Depot and Lowe’s, are open for business, but some are restricted to curbside service only.  

Bedford Fields on Route 101 in Bedford is open Mon-Sat. 10 a.m. -4 p.m. and Sun. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for online orders and curbside pick-up only. Some items are listed on their website and they encourage people to check for additional items on their Fcebook page. They have a good supply of seeds but are taking a wait and see approach for starter plants. 

Osborne’s Agway in Hooksett is also open for business at their new store on Cinemagic Way. Their hours are Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Sat. 8 a.m. -5 p.m.  They are providing curbside service, but also allow shoppers into their store provided they adhere to their social distancing directives.  

They’ve been getting lots of calls from first-time gardeners and are happy to take the time to help them get what they need. They still have plenty of seeds in stock and are currently selling cold-hardy seedlings like broccoli and kale. 

Shady Hill Greenhouses and Nursery on Adams Road in Londonderry has started greenhouses full of vegetable seedlings that will be available for sale in the beginning of May. They also have a garden center where they sell seeds, hand tools and seed starting kits.  They are open 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. daily. They have curbside service and are allowing people into their store provided they adhere to social distancing directives. 

Demers Garden Center on Mammoth Road in Manchester is open Tues.-Fri. 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. According to a post on their Facebook page they are not allowing people into the retail area, but are taking phone orders for curbside pick-up.

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Using peat pots to start seeds in a plastic tray. Photo/Kathy Staub

Getting started 

There are few things more satisfying than enjoying fresh produce from your own garden. Here are some hints to help you get started.

Pick a spot in your yard. It doesn’t have to be that big. In fact, smaller is better for beginners. The more sun you get the better. Ideally, you will want 8 hours of sun but if you don’t have that, don’t despair. There are some vegetables, like spinach and lettuce, that can grow with less sun. Some people tuck vegetables in with their ornamentals.  Alternatively, you can choose to grow your vegetables in containers which you can locate in the sunniest spot you can find. 

Normally Erler recommends that home gardeners have their soil tested, but the lab at UNH is currently closed. She suggests that gardeners pick up a Ph test kit at the garden center or hardware store and check the soil for acidity. Ideally the soil should have a Ph of 6 to 6.8 for healthy vegetables. Adding wood ash is a quick way to bring the soil up to neutral. 

As for fertilizing, Erler recommends doing it when you are ready to plant your seedlings, that way the nutrients go to your vegetable plants and not opportunistic weeds. 

Decide what to grow.  Lots of things grow well in New Hampshire. National seed catalogs are an option for finding seeds and equipment. Most people order in the winter months, so some things may be out of stock. You can also find seeds at the grocery store, the hardware store, and at your local garden center. 

Start seeds indoors. Manchester is located on USDA Zone 5b, which means that the last frost is usually around mid-May so you don’t want to plant frost-sensitive plants outdoors before then. Some plants like tomatoes and cucumbers need a headstart, so you can start them indoors from seeds.

Garden centers sell a variety of pots for starting seeds. You can also recycle plastic containers, just make sure you poke holes in the bottom for drainage. Packaged potting soil works better than dirt from your yard and it is worth picking some up.

Seeds like warmth to germinate. Putting them in a warm spot in the kitchen or on a radiator can encourage them to sprout earlier. Just make sure they don’t dry out. Once they sprout, give them as much sunlight as you can, otherwise they will get tall and spindly. 

A south-facing window is best. Serious gardeners use grow lights on their seedlings. Carrying them outside on a warm day to get a few additional rays can also help. Just don’t forget to bring them in at night.  Here is a link to the UNH Cooperative Extension’s seed starting guide

Direct sowing. Some things like beans and peas are better suited to planting directly in the ground. Peas can go in fairly early, but beans need warm soil to germinate so wait until May. Here is a handy schedule from UNH Cooperative Extension for when to plant your vegetables. 

Buying seedlings. Local garden centers sell a variety of plants that they have started from seeds. You can buy individual plants or flats of six plants and transplant them into your vegetable bed. 

Hardening off. Whether you buy your plants from the garden center or start your own from seeds it is a good idea to put the pots outside for a few days before you plant them. Even though the USDA map says the last frost occurs in Mid-May check the weather forecast before you leave your plants outside.

Plant your seedlings. Remove your seedlings from their pots and plant them in your garden beds. Some plants, like cucumbers, need to be at exactly the same level, while tomatoes actually benefit from having a bit of their stem buried underground. Press the soil firmly around the plants and give them a good watering. 

Water and weed. Erler suggests locating the garden close to a water source. Checking on your plants every day and making sure they are getting enough water is probably the most important thing you can do to ensure that you will get a good harvest.

Reducing weeds to keep competition to a minimum is also important. Mulching around plants with grass clippings, chipped leaves, or even newspaper will help keep weeds at bay. The rest you can pull by hand. By looking at your plants regularly you will also be alert to any pests that are damaging your plants. And if you have questions you can call the Cooperative Extension 

Enjoy your harvest. Depending on what you planted, by mid-summer you should begin to be rewarded for your hard work with delicious fresh vegetables.  Enjoy.


About this Author

Kathy Staub

Kathy Staub is a NH State Representative for Hillsborough District 25.