Digging in

Digging in

Gardeners, both new and seasoned, embrace growing now more than ever

Last year the Lincoln Community Garden added two new gardeners at its River Road growing space. This year, a year that has been anything but typical, 14 new gardeners will join the group, a sign of the times and the ever-increasing interest in growing one’s own produce.

While the group’s standard process for adding new gardeners involves putting names into a hat to draw for open spaces, Tom Rossi, manager of the garden, said they wanted to try to accommodate everyone who showed interest this year.

“We had to expand the size. We shrunk the footprint of every garden plot so we could add an additional 14 gardeners,” Rossi said.

Home gardening has always been popular, but in 2020 the backyard garden is taking on a particularly meaningful role.

The term “victory garden” usually refers to World War I and World War II, when people were called to contribute to war efforts, supplementing their own food supplies during times of rationing, and taking pride in doing so.

As the world goes through the collective experience of a global pandemic, the idea of a victory garden, or COVID-19 garden, has gained attention. But whether you give it a catchy name, or attach a current buzzword to go along with it, there is something about getting your hands dirty, connecting with nature, and taking ownership of growing something that is giving people a sense of comfort and grounding in uncertain times.

The increased interest has been noticeable at local garden centers. Darcy Muir, garden center manager at Northland Farm and Garden Center in Cumberland, said seed sales have quadrupled, and sales of loam and compost are up. The business has had to adjust to new and changing regulations, now offering curbside pickup and delivery.

While a trip to the grocery store looks much different than it did a few months ago, and many are looking to save money in an uncertain economy, the reasons for exploring sustainable gardening go beyond the obvious.

Some are looking for a bit of extra food security, a feeling of self-reliance, an activity to relieve stress, and others simply have the extra time that goes along with social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

Muir said she’s seen some customers just looking for things to do.

“They don’t know how long (until) it’s going to end,” she said, of residents being asked to spend their time at home.

Some are just cleaning up their yards. “It’s going to be their retreat for a little while,” Muir said.

The benefits of gardening can be both mental and physical. Connecting with nature out in fresh air, the satisfaction of watching something grow, a supply of healthy veggies, can all do a body good.

North Smithfield resident Ann Lilley, who has been gardening for about 40 years and started the North Smithfield Gardeners Circle Facebook page, says gardening during current times provides a healthy outlet.

“It’s a healthy way of trying to control what’s happening,” she said. “It really connects you with the natural world.”

Lilley, who serves on the North Smithfield Parks and Recreation Commission, said she’s started twice as many seedlings this year. While she always gives some away, she said, “My goal is to give a lot more away, for people who want to start gardens.”

Gardeners seem to be in agreement about the positives. Rossi called gardening therapeutic: “It’s the beauty of planting something, watching it grow, and then digesting it.”

Lilley pointed out that there will be challenges as well. There will be 95-degree days when the garden needs tending. And “there are times that you go out and find that the woodchuck ate half of your beans. That’s not very uplifting,” said Lilley.

For those up for both the benefits and challenges, there is still time to start. Spring can be chilly, and Lilley, Rossi and Muir all said to be watchful of nighttime low temperatures and that many plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants should not go into the ground before the end of May.

Some “cold crops” that can go in earlier are items like lettuces, cabbage, broccoli, peas, radishes and beets.

Whether you have a large backyard with room for a full-scale garden, or a small windowsill with a bit of room to regrow produce from vegetable scraps, anyone can garden.

“I don’t care if you have a piece of deck, 2 feet by 2 feet, you can garden,” said Rossi.

“Take a bag of potting soil and cut the top of the bag off. Make a couple of slits in the bottom of the bag. Now you have a piece of ground,” said Rossi. “Put your seeds right in.”

Rossi encourages gardeners to think outside the box and recycle items that can be used for gardening. “Be creative. I grew strawberries last year in sneakers,” he said.

He also advises going with natural or homemade ways to fertilize and control weeds, testing your soil, and planting some flowers near your vegetables. “Anything that will attract bees to your garden. Those are the workers,” said Rossi.

Lilley suggests beginners plan ahead, “thinking about where in your yard gets most sunlight,” searching vegetables that will do OK in partial shade, etc.

“If you have flower beds, you can put things in your flower beds, tuck stuff away,” she said.

Lilley said if you’re new, “find your neighbors that are gardeners and ask them questions. They’d love to talk to you, and they will be out in their yard. Every gardener I’ve ever met has been helpful.”

She suggested that while out in your neighborhood, “If you see older people that used to have gardens – why not volunteer to help them start a garden, and maybe share the space?”

Rossi said, “Please share your overabundance of vegetables,” suggesting bringing your extra produce to a neighbor, someone who can’t leave their home, or a senior.

Even during a time of social distancing, a common theme with gardeners seems to be a sense of community. And of all the reasons to start a garden, maybe this is one we all need more than ever right now.

Tom Rossi, manager of the Lincoln Community Garden, grows his early arugula and lettuce in a bag of potting soil.
Rossi suggests that if you have a tree stump on your property, hollow it out and fill it with plants – which serves two purposes - making the stump look better and providing a container to garden with.
Tom Rossi advises being creative with ways to begin a garden. Here, he uses an overturned fish tank as a do-it-yourself greenhouse for his early arugula and lettuce.
Some of Ann Lilley’s golden gate flat podded beans.
Some red and yellow beets and lettuce harvested from Ann Lilley’s garden during a previous growing season.