Why gardening during a pandemic is so comforting

We wanted to pass along this article which we thought to be very inspiring. Get out there and garden!


My friend passed along some vegetable seeds and my first burst of excitement has turned into dread.

With the struggle to slow COVID-19 leaving most households quarantined and food-obsessed (sourdough-starter sharing the least of it), I have these suddenly hot items in my hands. But now what do I do with them?

I have a lilac bush that’s still pathetic five years after planting. It’s a couple feet from the site of a sapling I pulled up, frustrated it never took root — so how am I going to transform my kale, pea, tomato and cucumber seeds into bumper crops?

I’ll wager other people have questions too, even if they don’t have a lackluster planting career and self-doubt like me.

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day this year coincided with the coronavirus outbreak and, relatedly, rising consumer demand for fruit and vegetable seeds.

Longtime gardeners have noticed more novices this year picking their brains on tips and troubleshooting.

For example, in Solon, Iowa, Paul Deaton, a gardener of three decades, has heard from people who want to know how to protect their plants from rabbits and deer, or how to plant and raise new crops.

In McComb, Miss., Gay Austin, president of National Garden Clubs, an organization comprised of 5,000 clubs across the country, has heard it too. One woman asked Austin how to cultivate the herb garden at the house she just purchased.

That gets me back to my seed-driven dread. Why should I bother when another planting failure now would be an extra point of aggravation during a frightening time?

For me at least, I think of the trimmed-down grocery shopping lists I could have if I didn’t need to buy as many fruits and vegetables. Instead of staring at a screen, it’s also a way I could distract myself during long weekend hours that are suddenly wide open.

“It’s a wonderful time to be a home gardener, because you’re home,” Austin noted.

I’m immediately aware others may regard gardening as much more than a hobby.

From her Bella Vista, Ark., offices, Look hears from customers all over the country who see empty grocery shelves or long food bank lines and are concerned. “The world as they’ve always known it no longer exists.”

Gardening makes these customers more self-reliant and lets them “gain more control over their food source,” Look said.

‘Plants are non-judgmental’

Seeds offer their grower a simple deal: plant and tend to me correctly, and I’ll grow for you. Usually, less is more.

It’s a bargain that rookies can uphold too, according to Rutgers University professor Joel Flagler.

“Let’s remember plants are non-judgmental. Plants are ready to respond to anybody, starting today,” said Flagler, who’s also the school’s agricultural extension agent for Bergen County, a suburban county near me. As an agricultural extension agent, Flagler helps homeowners, garden stores, farmers, nurseries, landscapers and others with their garden and agricultural efforts.

Start easy, he explained.

Rather than creating a whole garden, rookie gardeners can begin by putting seeds in pretty much any container, so long as it has drainage at the bottom. If you want to grow a larger plant, like a tomato, or put a couple of plants or flowers together, Flagler said it would be good to start with a bigger container. (That could be something with that’s between one and three feet in diameter, he said. And, again, don’t forget the drainage at the bottom.) Add sun, water and a “positive attitude” and you’re on your way.

I’m going to add a healthy dose of internet research to my planting efforts. So much for my minimal screen time.

I have tomato, cucumber, kale and pea seeds. But tomato and cucumber are plants for the hotter months, which, Flagler said, can be planted in late May and picked in late July. Kale and peas are “cool season” plants, he noted.

Kale’s outer leaves can bloom and be ready for eating in a few weeks, he said. Peas could take closer to 60 days. I figure I’ll start with those.

Flagler teaches horticultural therapy at Rutgers, a discipline using plants and gardening to improve the mental and physical health of people with special needs.

He understands the allure of gardening for everyone at a time like this.


‘There are certain, very stabilizing forces in gardening that can ground us when we are feeling shaky, uncertain, terrified really. It’s these predictable outcomes, predictable rhythms of the garden that are very comforting right now.’

— Rutgers University professor Joel Flagler


I understand how any activity giving a sense of control can seem especially attractive right now.

Actually, gardening isn’t some power trip, Flagler noted. “It’s that positive control, a feeling of ‘Hey, I did this, I did something good here.’”

That also seems like a good way to feel right now, even if only for moment.

So this past weekend, I bought potting soil and small, cardboard mini-pots to start planting.

I discarded my dread, dropped the kale and pea seeds in the pots, poured water and hoped for a second chance.

Credit to MarketWatch for this article.

Perennial of the Month: Hardy Hibiscus

The hardy perennial hibiscus, also called rose mallow or swamp rose, adds the beauty of a tropical hibiscus to the garden, but can withstand cold winter temperatures that kill the actual tropical varieties. Here’s how to grow hardy hibiscus in your garden!

Perennial hibiscus have big, disc-shaped, hollyhock-like flowers that can be 6 to 12 inches across. The perennial hibiscus species found in gardens are the result of hybridizing native hibiscus species, including Hibiscus moscheutos and H. coccineus.

The larger, more shrub-like hardy hibiscus species, H. syriacus (aka Rose of Sharon), has similar planting and care to the smaller species highlighted in this article. It produces an abundance of smaller flowers and grows into a much larger shrub that doesn’t die back to the ground in winter.

How to Grow Hardy Hibiscus Plants

Plant taxonomy classifies the hardy hibiscus plants as Hibiscus moscheutos. They also go by such common names as rose mallows and swamp mallows. The hardy hibiscus is a cold hardy plant despite bearing large blooms that call to mind the tropics. The hues of the most common cultivars are white, bicolored, or various shades of red or pink, but other colors are now available.

Although hardy hibiscus plants seem woody in summer and function as sub-shrubs in the landscape, their stems do die back to the ground in winter, making them herbaceous perennials, technically.

Some of the most popular hardy hibiscus cultivars reach about four feet in height, with a spread slightly less than that, but the bloom size can be up to 10 inches.

Even cultivars with smaller blooms still produce impressive, saucer-size flowers. While each bloom lives only a day or two, they are quickly replaced by newcomers.

The species plant is indigenous to eastern North America. H. moscheutos cultivars can be grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 to 9.

Light

For your hardy hibiscus plant to bloom to its greatest potential, it needs about six hours a day of full sun. However, if you live in a hot and dry zone you should provide your hardy hibiscus occasional relief from the bright afternoon sun. Shade from other leafy plants placed nearby should help. Indoor hibiscus plants should be situated near a sunny (southwest facing) window and if that still doesn’t provide enough light, you can augment with artificial lighting.

Soil

The species plant is a wetland plant, and hardy hibiscus flowers can be treated as plants for wet soils. So if your landscaping situation is a soggy area where most plants do not grow well, H. moscheutos might be the answer. This makes them useful around water features.

Water

If you are not planting hardy hibiscus plants in a wet spot, make sure they are adequately watered—but don’t overdo it. A small plant with fewer leaves needs less water than a large leafy plant. In warm weather, you need to water your hibiscus plant daily but in the winter you should water it only when the soil is dry to the touch.

Temperature and Humidity

Hibiscus flower best in the 60 to 90 F range. Bring plants indoors before temperatures dip to 32 F, but be mindful that low humidity can dry them out. Mist the leaves daily or place each pot on a tray with a layer of gravel underneath. Add water up to the top of the gravel and as it evaporates, the humidity will rise around the plants. A humidifier may also help.

Fertilizer

Growing hibiscus plants need plenty of nutrients. Use either slow-release or water-soluble fertilizer but make sure the nutrients are balanced. For example, use a 20-20-20 or 10-10-10 fertilizer. You can use a diluted liquid fertilizer once a week, or a slow-release fertilizer four times a year: early spring; after the first round of blooming; mid-summer; and early winter.

Potting and Repotting

Repot in late winter and use houseplant potting soil or a soilless mixture. Your hibiscus can wait two to three years to be moved into a larger pot. Just remember to use one with good drainage.

Perennial of the Month: Coneflower

Coneflowers, also known as Echinacea, are tough little native flowers that draw butterflies, bees, and birds to the garden! Here’s how to grow this American native—and important tips on plant care, from deadheading to cutting back in July.

Bright upright plants, coneflowers are a North American perennial in the Daisy family (Asteraceae). Specifically, the plant is native to the eastern United States, from Iowa and Ohio south to Louisiana and Georgia. They grow 2 to 4 feet in height with dark green foliage. They are fast growers and self-sow their seed profusely. These midsummer bloomers can flower from midsummer through fall frost!

Their genus name Echinacea comes from the Latin name for hedgehog, echinus, referring to the often prickly lower stem of the plant. Coneflowers have raised cone-like centers (hence, the name) which contain seeds that attract butterflies. Leave the seed heads after bloom and you’ll also attract songbirds! 

Trouble-free, coneflowers are drought-tolerant, once established. They can take the heat!  As native plants with prickly stems, they are more deer-resistant than most flowering plants. 

The most common species available to gardeners is Echinacea purpurea, the purple coneflower. If purple doesn’t pair well with your garden’s color palette, don’t fret: coneflowers can be found in a range of bright or subdued colors.

Coneflowers are at home in a traditional garden or a wildflower meadow; they are striking in masses, especially as a mix of various colors. 

PLANTING

CHOOSING AND PREPARING A PLANTING SITE

  • Coneflowers prefer well-drained soil and full sun for best bloom. Choose a location where the coneflowers won’t get shaded out nor shade out others.
  • They may reach between 2 and 4 feet in height, depending on variety.
  • Coneflowers are very tolerant of poor soil conditions, but they perform best in soil that’s rich so mix in organic matter if needed.
  • Coneflowers are drought tolerant.

Loosen the soil in your garden using a garden fork or tiller to 12 to 15 inches deep, then mix in a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost. (Learn more about preparing soil for planting.)

WHEN TO PLANT CONEFLOWERS

  • More commonly, coneflowers are bought as small plants with blooms already on the way. These should be planted in spring or early summer.
  • Coneflowers can be started from seed in spring indoors (about a month before the last spring frost date) or outdoors (when the soil temperature has reached at least 65°F/18°C).
    • Note: Coneflowers started from seed may take 2 to 3 years before producing blooms.
    • Better yet, don’t cut back coneflower plants and they’ll self-seed successfully!
  • If dividing or transplanting coneflowers, do so in the spring or fall.

HOW TO PLANT CONEFLOWERS

  • Plant coneflowers about 1 to 3 feet apart, depending on the mature size of the variety.
  • If you are moving a potted plant into the ground, dig a hole about twice the pot’s diameter and carefully place the plant in the soil. Bury the plant to the top of the root ball, but make sure the root ball is level with the soil surface. Water it thoroughly.

 

Shade Gardening for Beginners 

Shade gardening is an essential skill for homeowners who want to keep their entire property green and thriving. Most residential yards have some areas that rarely get direct sunlight and are prone to soil erosion because nothing grows there. This is especially true under spreading trees (such as oaks) which have dense foliage. Residential structures like houses and fences also tend to block sunshine and create dim spaces. 

Introduction to Shade Gardening

Contrary to your expectations, ground cover is not your only option for shady areas in your garden. You can plant shrubs, vines, flowering plants, and herbs in areas that receive little sun. Some species require well drained soil while others can grow in damp, boggy patches. Generally, shade loving plants appreciate being protected from harsh winds. This makes them perfect for side yards and other out-of-the-way retreats on your property.

In warm climates, houseplants (such as Caladium) that require very little light can be planted outdoors. For cooler zones, a luxurious bed of moss may be an ideal addition to your garden. Remember that the ground below deciduous trees will receive light during the winter. You can plant early flowering bulbs like crocuses and snowdrops in these areas since they will bloom before the trees send out new leaves in the spring.

Full Shade Plant Options

Some of the easiest shade plants to grow are those that spread via rhizomes or runners rather than by seed. Wild ginger, bugleweed, and lady fern are examples of species that propagate in this way. Such plants tend to be invasive. You may have to prune them aggressively to keep them from taking over your garden.

Perennial flowers that thrive in full shade include the spectacular foxglove. Bleeding heart, bishop’s hat, and deadnettle are other options. These plants only bloom for a couple of months per year. However, their foliage is still attractive during the rest of the season. 

Shrubs that can be grown in the shade include: Hebe, rhododendron, laurel, yew, and many species of holly. If you have large areas in your landscape that receive little sunlight, you can use these bushes to add height and bulk to your shade gardening design. 

Lilyturf is a ground cover that grows in grassy clumps. It is a popular border plant. Meadow rue, hosta, and lily of China are other shade tolerant ground covers. These types of vegetation are usually not as tough as lawn grass; so plant them in areas with no foot traffic.

Don’t forget ivy when you plan your shade garden. Grow it along a fence line or up tree trunks. Keep ivy away from your house – it can cause damage as its tendrils work their way under siding or into mortar.

Edible Plants 

Herbs such as mint, basil, and parsley will tolerate partial shade. Some leafy vegetables are also suitable for shade gardening. These plants grow more slowly with less sun, but should still produce plenty of fresh foliage for your dinner table. 

Perennial of the Month: Daylily

Daylilies are many gardeners’ favorite plants. They are dependable perennials, they are prolific and colorful bloomers, and they are relatively free of pests. Daylilies are tolerant of drought and flooding, immune to heat stress, tolerant of most soils and grow well in full sun or light shade. 

Height/Spread

Daylilies can range in height from 8 inches to 5 feet, and flower size can be as small as 2 inches or as large as 8 inches.

Growth Rate

Daylilies may bloom the year that they are planted, even from a relatively small plant. They will reach mature size in about three to four years. Daylilies are long-lived if given even moderate care.

Ornamental Feature

Daylilies are grown for their flowers in a rainbow of colors, and many shapes and sizes. There are daylilies in bloom from late spring until autumn. Individual flowers last only one day but since each plant produces many buds, the total blooming time of a well-established clump may be 30 to 40 days. Many varieties have more than one flowering period

 

Daylilies are little troubled by diseases and pests. The most common disease problem is daylily leaf streak. Thrips, spider mites, aphids, slugs and snails are the main pests of daylilies. 

Landscape Use

Daylilies are used for color in shrub borders and in perennial beds. They are excellent ground covers on slopes. Their roots will hold soil against erosion once established. Small cultivars can be planted in containers.

Daylilies grow best in direct sun or light shade. Darker-colored cultivars should be protected from strong afternoon sun that may fade the petals.

Daylilies prefer slightly acid (pH 6 to 6.5) well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter. They are however, very tolerant and will grow in almost any soil except poorly drained soils. If drainage is a problem, plant daylilies in raised beds.

The best time to plant daylilies is during early fall or early spring when soil temperatures are moderate. Daylilies will tolerate planting during any time of year. Plant daylilies 18 to 24 inches apart. Set the plant so that the crown (the point where roots and foliage meet) is no deeper than 1 inch below the surface of the soil.

Water plants thoroughly after planting, and continue to deep soak them at least weekly until established. Although daylilies are drought-tolerant once established, consistent watering while budding and flowering produces better-quality flowers.

Daylilies usually grow adequately without fertilizer but grow best when lightly fertilized. They prefer moderate nitrogen and higher rates of phosphorous and potash. Slow-release fertilizers are best for daylilies. Put down fertilizer in the early spring just as new growth commences, and again in midsummer. Make sure that the soil is moist whenever applying fertilizer. Mulch helps to conserve moisture in the soil and control weeds.

Daylilies grow rapidly to form dense clumps. Division is not essential but may revitalize flowering if the plants have become crowded. Division is the usual way to increase your supply of daylilies. Dividing is usually done following flowering, but plants will tolerate division throughout the entire growing season.

Lift the entire clump or cluster out of the soil with a garden fork. To separate a clump into individual fans (sections with a set of roots and leaves), shake the clump to remove as much soil as possible, then work the roots of individual fans apart.

Daylilies look best if given some grooming through the year. During winter, remove any rotted or damaged foliage from around evergreen daylilies. Remove spent blooms and seedpods after summer flowering to improve appearance and encourage rebloom. When all the flowers on a scape (the daylilies’ flowering stalk) are finished, cut off the scape close to ground level. Remove dead foliage from daylilies as they die back in the fall.

Perennial of the Month: Hosta

Hosta are hardy perennials that are especially perfect for a shady garden. Reliable and very easy to grow, hosta are long-lived—and may even outlive the gardener!
 
What’s neat about hosta is that there are so many sizes, heights, textures, and colors. Plus, they work in many kinds of gardens (patio, border, container, rock).Though mainly known for their attractive foliage, the plants also produce lovely flowers during the summer in fragrant pink, lavender, or white. Hummingbirds love the flowers. Note: Slugs, snails, deer, and rabbits like hosta almost as much as people do. Keep this in mind if you have deer regularly wandering into your garden.

HOW TO CARE FOR HOSTAS

  • Apply a well-balanced, slow-release fertilizer after planting or when growth emerges in the spring. 
  • Keep the soil moist but not wet.
  • Place mulch around the plants to help retain moisture. 
  • Remove flower stalks after bloom to encourage new growth.
  • Clean up around the plants and remove brown leaves in the fall to help control diseases and slugs.
  • Transplanting and dividing is best done in early spring when the leaves just begin to emerge.

TRANSPLANTING OR DIVIDING HOSTAS

Hostas do not usually need dividing for their health. If they have less space, they’ll simply grow less quickly. However, if you wish to divide a hosta for a neater appearance, it’s best to do so in early spring once the ‘eyes’ or growing tips start to emerge from the ground.  This is also a good time to move or transplant a hosta to a new site.

Leave as much of the root attached as possible to each crown or plant. Plant the new hostas at the same soil level as they were previously. Water well until established.

PESTS/DISEASES

  • Slugs and snails:  If you see irregular holes along the leaf’s edges or entire leaves chewed off at the stem nocturnal slugs may be the culprit. Look for shiny slime trails on the leaves or on the ground around the plants.
  • Deer: It’s true. Deer love hosta. To discourage deer, use fencing or motion-sensitive sprinklers. Speak to your local garden center about odor-based sprays and deer repellents; the deer will taste the distasteful repellent first. 
  • Rabbits: If you see clean-cut chew marks on young hosta stems and leaves you may have rabbits in your garden. Look for dropped leaves and rabbit droppings on the ground and around the plants.

Thanks to the Old Farmer’s Almanac.