Roots and Shoots: Gardening in a Crisis

A friend emailed this week to ask how my garden was coming along, assuming my shelter-in-place lifestyle would lead to great things.

I laughed. Then I cried a little.

Everyone’s circumstances during this unprecedented suspension of normal life are so different. Some people are bored, looking for ways to fill their days; others are struggling to balance children, work and other demands and complications.

Here are a few ways to get fresh air and the stress relief of making things grow, from the very small to the more time-consuming.

If you have 15 minutes and want to grow food …

Microgreens are the answer. Available as seed mixes, microgreens are the seedlings of vegetables like cabbage, kale, radish and other leafy greens. They grow fast, can be harvested repeatedly once the first true leaves appear, and are pretty foolproof. In just a week or two, you can be eating fresh greens that are full of nutrients in salads, sandwiches and other dishes.

Use any size shallow tray or container that’s handy and is at least 2 inches deep. The roots aren’t deep. Use whatever soil you have available. A sterile potting soil means less chance of weeds or disease, but garden soil is fine. Scatter the seeds and water. Place in a sunny window; it’s too early to plant outside. Keep the soil moist.

Stay home and involve even the youngest members of the household in the garden. (Photo by P. Doan)

After a week or two, when the first true leaves appear (depending on the mix), microgreens can be cut and eaten as needed. If you don’t cut them to the soil level, many varieties will regrow and can be harvested again. Or just add new seeds to the areas that are harvested to have a continuous source of fresh greens.

If you’ve got free time for a couple of days …

Involve any willing residents in your home in plotting out a vegetable garden in raised beds or in the ground. Building raised beds is more time-consuming, but it’s easier in the long term and will require less maintenance. Detailed instructions can be found on many websites and my husband created a step-by-step guide for a friend that I’ll share if you email me.

As of this writing, there are local sources for seeds and plants, including Sabellico, Vera’s, Adam’s Fairacre Farms and One Nature Garden Center, as well as online ordering. It’s best to call ahead to discuss protocols and inventory before venturing out.

Square-foot gardening is fun way to engage children and could count as a math exercise. Make a grid of a garden bed with 12-inch sections. Decide what you want to plant. Then follow the formula for how many plants per section.

Since you’re working in 12-inch by 12-inch squares, the mature size of the plant dictates how many can be planted per square. If the space between plants is 12 inches, one plant per square foot; 6 inches, four per square foot; 4 inches, nine per square foot; or 2 inches, 16 per square foot. (For more details, see this previous column.)

If you have three to 40 hours (or more) …

Take a class. The Cornell Cooperative Extension and Penn State Extension offer dozens of free classes online. Learn about pruning, healthy soil, mulching, vegetable growing and many more practical skills.

The New York Botanical Garden has moved many of its classes online, ranging from orchids to rooftop vegetable gardens and basic botany and horticulture classes. The classes aren’t free; fees depend on the length of the course.

The Ecological Landscape Alliance is a nonprofit membership organization based in the Northeast that charges $25 to $100 annually, depending on your affiliation. It has many webinars, workshops and recorded classes on all aspects of sustainable landscaping available. See

Seed swap and local gardener resources

Panic-buying of seeds has made headlines this week and many online resources are reserving them for commercial growers or delaying orders. While I haven’t delved deep into this anxiety-inducing trigger point, as a community we can help each other by sharing seeds and transplants responsibly. The Philipstown Garden Club, Master Gardener Volunteers from Cornell Cooperative Extension and other local gardening groups on Facebook can help you find resources and seeds.

Pamela Doan, a garden coach with One Nature, has grown ferns in Seattle, corn on a Brooklyn rooftop and is now trying to cultivate shitake mushrooms on logs. Email her at [email protected]

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