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Starting Your COVID/Climate/Recession Garden: A basic guide

There are a couple of things you should consider and plan in order to set your garden up for success.

Where will you be gardening? If you have a yard or access to a shared yard, consider using that. If not, planter boxes can be affixed to a balcony or window sill, and they are great for leafy greens, roots, herbs and smaller upright vegetables like peppers. You can also see if there is a community garden near you where you could reserve a plot.

Get your soil tested. If you’re using your backyard or anywhere that hasn’t been gardened recently – especially if you live in a current or former industrial area — you should get your soil tested to see if there are dangerous levels of heavy metals present. URI offers a service that is somewhat limited by COVID (web.uri.edu/mastergardener/soil-testing-service/). If your soil isn’t optimal for growing food, and even if it is, I suggest putting together cheap raised beds. This gives you a little more control over your soil quality and fertility, which is the basis of a healthy garden.

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What do you want to grow? This is going to depend a lot on your goals and what you and your family want to eat, and be limited by the kind of space you have. Hoping to maximize the calories per square foot? Potatoes and other root vegetables, along with winter squash, are good bets. Want to cut down your grocery bill? Focus on the foods you eat the most, and especially things like leafy greens that are relatively expensive per pound and easy to grow quickly and densely. I tend to grow a lot of different types of crops, with the combined goals of eating from the garden over a long season, harvesting mostly the foods my family eats regularly, and being able to can/freeze/dry/store some produce to eat during the winter. 

Design your garden. I recommend not planting large areas to the same crop (monoculture), but instead planting many different crops (polyculture) by alternating rows. This makes it harder for pests and diseases to spread, and generally provides for a healthier garden ecosystem. Otherwise, designing your garden is going to be heavily dependent on your unique geography and garden setup, the specific crops you’re growing and your philosophy. Are you a follower of companion planting like me? That helps dictate the general sets of crops you should plant together. Learn about gardening philosophy to help you design your perfect garden.

Are you starting any of your plants from seed? And if so, are you starting them indoors? This question determines what your gardening year will look like and what type of equipment you have to buy. There are long-season plants (peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, certain herbs) that, in our area, need to be started from seed indoors in March or purchased and planted outdoors in May, after the last frost. Some plants (carrots and greens) can be seeded outside as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring, and others (beans and squash) can be seeded outside after the last frost. In my view, there is no reason to spend the extra money to buy starts for any crops that can be direct-seeded outside (either in early spring or after the last frost). This planting calendar is a great resource to plan out your year (https://web.uri.edu/mastergardener/files/CooperativeExtension-2019_PlantingCalendar-1.pdf).

Getting Started

  1. Get your seeds. I’ve had very good luck with Fedco Seeds, located in Maine, but there also are a lot of local sources. A small seed packet goes a long way, and starting your own plants from seed is a good way to grow many more varieties than you’d find in a garden store. 
  2. Buy your seed-starting setup. You need some sort of shelving system, grow lights and plastic trays with cells that can be filled with seed starting medium. I encourage you to do some research if you want to go this route.
  3. Start your seeds indoors ASAP. Long, warm-season plants like tomatoes and peppers need to be started indoors around mid-March. There are different schedules depending on the plant, so consult the planting calendar linked above. 
  4. Start a compost pile. This can be as simple as throwing food scraps into a pile in the dirt or an enclosed bin on your porch, or as complex as a multi-bin rotation system. Your call. If you have the space for it, making your own compost is a free way to get good-quality soil fertility booster for your garden.
  5. Prepare your garden and soil. Good soil grows good crops. Apply compost, every year or two fork the soil to aerate it, and keep it mulched with leaves, grass clippings, straw or something similar.
  6. Start seeds outdoors/plant seedlings outdoors as appropriate. Based on the planting calendar I linked above, start direct seeding things like greens, carrots, cole crops and pole beans as the weather becomes appropriate. And long, warm season starts like tomatoes (whether you’ve bought them or started them indoors in March) can be planted out after the last frost, in late May.
  7. Weed; water; mulch; tend; repeat. Once you have your garden planted, the name of the game is maintenance! Weed it regularly to make sure things like crab grass don’t gain a foothold. Water as it needs it (every few days; more in the heat of summer; less if it’s raining regularly). Apply mulch a few times over the year if needed. Spend time with your plants to understand and address their needs.
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