Quarantine Gardening: Sowing Seeds of Healing and Growth

I began my quarantine garden in March 2020. It was a time of uncertainty. There were discussions of closing the office, concerns about the scarcity of all sorts of items at the grocery stores, and a growing sense of unease. We had been in our new house for just about four months, and I thought a new garden would be a project that could provide some welcome distraction, hopefully, bear fruitful results, and of course, raise our property value! As I picked up baby tomato plants, lettuce seeds, and pepper seedlings, I imagined the bounty of fresh produce my partner and I would be gathering all summer. As I pulled up all the weeds and ripped vines from the abandoned garden boxes, I pictured the neat little rows of my future garden thriving. I read countless articles and blogs about best gardening practices and promptly decided to just wing it.

I’m no stranger to gardening. Some of my earliest memories are of helping my grandmother pick tomatoes and eggplants and snapping the ends off green beans from her vegetable garden. My mother always had an impressive flower garden and the occasional tomato plant no matter where we lived and has eventually made her way to working at the botanical gardens. I had enjoyed great success with watermelons, cucumbers, and tomatoes at my previous house, so I figured my new gardening project couldn’t be too hard.

Here are a few of the lessons I would like to impart:

1. Placement matters. With a north-facing house and three large, rowdy dogs in the

Our freshly weeded and mulched east facing beds

backyard, I was relegated to planting in the garden boxes at the east side of our privacy fence. They did not get great sunlight. The tomato plants grew tall and curvy, straining for the sun before they ever started producing. Find a southern facing area to plant for best sunlight or search for plants that like a little bit of shade.

2. Soil matters. My mom always corrects me when I call it dirt. Plants need soil, not just dirt. She’s right. After a trip to the garden center to fill the bed of my pickup with soil and several days of shoveling it into the various garden beds, I noticed a marked difference in the plants’ attitudes.

3. If you want to grow from seeds, start early and indoors. No matter how much you might try, you can’t rush the growth of a plant. It takes patience and time. If you want

Baby seedlings ready for planting after final frost

to reduce the countless single-use plastics you’ll accumulate from purchasing starter plants and instead grow from seeds, the time to start is now. If you try to plant seeds directly in your garden now, they’ll freeze. If you plant them after the last freeze, they won’t have time to complete their growth cycle before it gets too hot. Read the labels on the packets. They’re there for a reason, and no, you’re not smarter than the experts (or the plants and nature). I learned this the hard way.

4. Bugs can be both your best friend and your worst enemy. When my tomato plants started showing signs of aphids, I tried every natural remedy I could find: brushing and pinching them off, spraying them with vinegar, even vacuuming the leaves! My mom suggested

Basil being devoured by pests

spraying a solution of water with 1 oz of isopropyl alcohol and a few drops of Dawn dish soap. That seemed to help, but you can’t spray before direct sunlight or they’ll get sunburnt. I was firmly against using

Easter tiger swallowtail butterfly on marigold

any type of pesticide since I wanted my garden to be a haven for pollinators, but that meant I was frequently trying to remove slugs, larvae, aphids, mites, and other pests. The reward was an abundance of bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds.

5. Invest in a pair of sturdy and comfortable gloves. I hate gloves. I like to feel the soil in my hands. But after many cuts, scrapes, broken nails, and finally a trip to the dermatologist for a reaction to English Ivy, I caved and purchased a pair of soft, strong gloves that cover up to my elbows and protect me even against the toughest rose bush. I can’t begin to tell you what a difference the gloves have made.

6. Let go of any expectations. This first season of gardening at our new home was a lesson

First harvest of tomatoes, jalapenos, ground cherries, & figs

in humility and acceptance. Some of the plants I was most excited about (cilantro, cucumbers!) just failed to thrive. Others, like the three varieties of basil, flourished. The flower beds in the front yard produced an explosion of color through the seasons, and I’m very excited about expanding these this season.

7. Embrace the experience. At the height of restrictions, when I couldn’t leave the house for anything aside from

Surprise stargazer lilies in the front yard

an occasional grocery run, I treasured the time I spent outside in my garden. It took at least 30 minutes every day for a thorough watering, but that first half an hour frequently turned into 1-3 hours of weeding

and caretaking. Of course, you can go the route of a sprinkler or irrigation system, but watering became a sort of meditation for me. No matter what you do, you can’t rush it. You have to take the time to let the water soak into every area. That time to slow down, breathe, and be outside in my own little corner of nature was so healing and enriching in itself. I got to know our neighbors from across the yards as they gardened and we swapped bulbs, seeds, tomatoes, and peppers. I met neighbors from other blocks as we chatted about progress when they passed on their daily dog walks. We even harvested the seeds from our wildflowers to give as gifts to the guests at our wedding.

As I write this, I’m pulling up articles about starting seeds indoors and when to plant them for our area, knowing all the while my garden will be more of an interpretive dance than a carefully choreographed routine, and maybe that’s the point. You can read endless listicles and articles about the hardiest plants, the highest producing plants, the best time to plant, the best soil to use, or the most attractive plants for resale, and if you have the discipline to go that route, I applaud you. But if it all seems just a little too daunting or time-consuming, find a patch of soil, put something in it, and nurture it. If you take the time to absorb the experience, you will always reap much more than you sow.

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