With every tray of spring kale sold at Homestead Gardens, every packet of organic beet seeds, Heather Wheatley is watching her customers use the coronavirus pandemic to re-think their relationship to the food on their plates.
“The silver lining to this horrible, horrible time is that we’re seeing lots of brand-new gardeners,” said Wheatley, the education coordinator for Homestead Gardens, which operates two locations in Anne Arundel County.
”Procuring food is at the top of people’s minds again just as it was during World War II and the Great Depression when everyone was growing victory gardens. During times of crisis, we draw on the experience of people who have come before us to figure out how to feed ourselves and how to educate our children.
”It’s exciting to see.”
Nationwide and throughout Maryland, members of the public feel beset by an invisible attacker (the novel coronavirus) that they can’t control. They are responding by taking charge of things that they can manage, including their food.
Packages of vegetable seeds have been doing a brisk business at garden centers, grocers and hardware stores, according to operators of these establishments.
With no clear end date to the pandemic in sight, University of Maryland Extension agents are, err, fielding “a spike in questions from people wanting to start their own vegetable gardens,” according to Jon Traunfeld, director of the Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center.
Nurseries and garden centers, which typically would be entering their busy seasons in April, are as packed as social distance protocols will allow.
“Our customers want to procure food that is safe and hasn’t been handled by a lot of people before it gets to their table,” Wheatley said. “They are saying: ‘Maybe I can’t make my own toilet paper. But, I can at least grow some of the food I eat.’”
According to the Food and Drug Administration, the risk of catching COVID-19 from food is low.
But even when strict social distancing protocols are in place, grocery stores get lots of foot traffic — and foot traffic unavoidably is accompanied by risk of infection. Earlier this month, two employees of the Giant supermarket chain in Maryland tested positive for the disease, and one died.
Planting vegetables can be a way of limiting the number or duration of trips to the grocery store. A robust garden also guarantees access to healthy foods.
John Kozenski, sales manager of the Meyer Seed Company of Baltimore said that despite reassurances from federal authorities that the nation’s food supply system remains strong, some customers “are starting to worry that grocery stores might not have anything in them in a few months.”
Sales of vegetable seeds at his company, which was founded in 1910, are running about 25 percent ahead of a typical spring, Kozenski said. The biggest sellers are packets of the cabbage, collard greens, spinach, broccoli, onions and other cool-weather crops that people can plant now.
Not all the seeds are being bought by homeowners with vast, sun-filled backyards.
Kozenski said several clients are apartment dwellers eager to grow their own rutabagas and radishes. Many vegetables will flourish if planted in a deep container on a sunny patio, while herbs will proliferate on a sunny windowsill.
“We’re getting a lot of parents who are coming in with their children now that they’re home from school because of the pandemic," Kozenski said.
“It’s a win-win situation: Our kids stay active. Everyone wants to be outside because its spring and it’s beautiful. You can garden while still maintaining social distancing and growing your own food is so rewarding.”
For some apartment dwellers, no balcony — no matter how large — will suffice. The city of Baltimore is home to more than 100 informally-run community gardens. Many are operated by schools, churches and neighborhood associations on what once were vacant lots. Many of these groups are willing to provide volunteers with a patch on which to grow peas and peppers.
Other gardener-wannabees turn to the Baltimore City Department of Recreation & Parks, which operates “city farms” in 11 public parks.
Plots averaging 10 feet by 15 feet are rented to city residents and employees for $35 for the growing season, plus a one-time $10 application fee, according to the program’s chief horticulturist, Melissa Grim.
Apprentice gardeners are mentored by on-site managers and experienced gardeners.
The city farm program has been popular since it began in the 1980s, Grim said, with demand for prime gardens close to residents’ homes often outstripping the supply.
“I’m being inundated with requests for plots,” she said, “but I’m not any more inundated this year than usual.”
Though several city farms have long waiting lists, Grim said that plots are available now in Carroll and Ciaglia parks. Interested gardeners can call 410-396-1080.
Tia McDonald, 39, knows how rewarding it can be to grow her own food.
She began to develop a green thumb while caring for her mother’s houseplants. Later she volunteered for a local vegetable farm, weeding rows of cucumbers and staking frail scallion stalks. Some of the plants she grew were sold at the 32nd Street Farmers Market. Others went home with McDonald and became her dinner.
Now, she’s trying to start a community garden in the neighborhood of Whitaker Park where she lives.
“It’s gratifying to see things growing quickly and being grown properly. I love the way that cilantro and scallions smell when they’re in the ground. I love teaching kids what I know and I love contributing to the ecosystem," McDonald said.
”It’s like serenity for me.”
Plant your own pandemic garden
Below are a few tips on plowing your own pandemic garden.
Spring is the time to plant cool weather crops.
”When I talk to the kids I work with, I tell them that April is not your flashy vegetable time,” said Marcus J. Williams, University of Maryland Extension agent for Baltimore City.
”April is your unsexy vegetable time, the time to plant carrots and potatoes and things that mostly grow underground. You’ll have to wait until it warms up in May to plant your sweet potatoes, your corn and your tomatoes.”
Don’t expect immediate results.
“You have to plant now to get food from your garden this summer," Kozenski said.
Even the speed demons of garden crops — baby greens — won’t be ready for harvesting for about a month. At the other end of the spectrum, sweet potatoes take their own sweet time maturing and can’t be dug up for a solid 125 days.
Don’t overdo it.
”People underestimate how much time and attention even a small garden requires,” Traunfeld said.
A 50-square-foot garden, he said, is plenty big for a newbie with a hose and trowel.
”Weeds can really get out of control unless you stay on top of them," he said. "I‘ve seen people get discouraged and stop after the first year because they’re trying to do too much.”
Some veggies are more forgiving than others.
“I really push sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas or any other kind of southern peas," Traunfeld said. "They can take our heat and dry conditions.”
Wheatley suggests growing the so-called “three sisters” — corns, beans and squash — in the same plot. These crops don’t merely coexist, but aid one another, with the corn providing a support for the bean vines, the beans drawing nitrogen (which helps a plant develop green leaves) from the air into the soil, and the spiky squash deterring predators.
Williams advocates for zucchini and its yellow-hued best buds.
”You can’t go wrong with a squash,” Williams said. “Just make sure you give it plenty of room to roam.”
Breaking News Alerts
Take a (free) class
The University of Maryland Extension traditionally has been the go-to source for acquiring gardening expertise. During the pandemic, staff members are experimenting with putting their previously hands-on classes online.
A post dated March 30 in the Extension’s “Maryland Grows” blog is headlined: “Want to start a vegetable garden? Here’s how.”
In addition, the horticulturist and author Norman Winters recently provided tips in how to maximize vegetable growth in a relatively small space.
Williams is working with the Enoch Pratt Free Library to put Its Baltimore City Master Gardener Library classes — a series that previously was live — online and available through prattlibrary.org no later than May 1.
In addition, the extension’s “Grow It, Eat It” program is hopes to offer a workshop series in the late summer or early early fall that will teach new gardeners techniques for safely preserving and canning their summertime bounty so it can be enjoyed year-round.