The coronavirus pandemic has many of us wishing we had home-grown vegetables at our fingertips. Or, if not fresh, frozen or preserved veggies would be most welcome.
“Society has a renewed interest in home gardening after spending the spring season at home during the COVID-19 shutdown,”
Sue Konvolinka, a master gardener from Upper Yoder Township, says. “Food security or access to adequate, affordable and nutritious food has been a serious concern.” While growing your own vegetables involves more than pushing a few seeds into the ground, nearly anyone can have fresh vegetables this summer if you are willing to do the work.
Konvolinka, a Penn State University master gardener since 1993 and a landscape design consultant with National Garden Club, says there are only a few things (other than seeds or seedlings) we need to have a garden. “To thrive and survive, vegetables need the same basic elements that humans need – warmth and light from the sun, water and nutrients.”
While the soil, seeds and water can be easy to come by, adequate sunlight can be more difficult.
So, before starting any garden make sure your chosen spot gets adequate light. Plants require six to eight hours of sun a day so check out the spot at various times to see how much sun the area gets.
“If sun exposure is from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., without trees or buildings blocking the light, vegetables that grow in full sun will flourish,” Konvolinka says. “If sun exposure is less than five hours a day, and is shaded by leaves from trees creating dappled sunlight, consider vegetables that grow in part shade.”
Konvolinka says sun or part-sun locations will warm soil temperatures for seed germination in the spring followed by rapid plant growth. “Planting too early doesn’t give a gardener a ‘jump’ on the season,” she says. “Without heat, seeds will not germinate and seedlings will not thrive.
Knowing your “hardiness zone” is important when choosing plants and seeds. Zone information is noted on the back of seed packets and, according to planthardiness.ars.usda.gov, Cambria County is in 5b or 6a.
The estimated last spring frost date also is crucial for safe outdoor planting. “To wait until after Memorial Day would be safe,” Konvolinka says. “Otherwise be prepared to cover on frosty nights and remember if the soil is too cold, plants will struggle and not thrive, so please be patient.”
There are several different types of gardens. The traditional garden is usually large and in the ground in your yard. A boxed garden can be built on the ground or in raised beds high enough to make bending over a non-issue. Apartment dwellers can create a garden in planters or pots on windowsills or on a patio or deck.
Many of us live in rural areas where there is plenty of room to put a garden in our yard.
Though time consuming and a bit labor intensive, having a large garden means a big yield. You can glean enough of a harvest to do some canning or freeze the extras, keeping you in fresh veggies all year long.
In addition to adequate sunlight, the spot you choose for your in-ground garden must drain well. If the area is wet during heavy rains, it probably isn't the best spot for a garden.
Put your garden near a water source as you will need to water every day during dry times.
A fence is important to keep out wildlife. Burying the fence at least a foot underground will keep out smaller critters.
Preparing the soil is one of the more difficult things about putting in a garden for the first time.
Existing vegetation must be removed completely – if not expect to battle weeds and grass in your garden.
After the grass is removed, the garden must be tilled to a depth of 10 to 12 inches using a tiller or a garden tractor. Remove rocks and roots.
“Nutrients in the form of good soil to start the season is the biggest secret to share,” Konvolinka says. “Composted soil with an addition of seasoned mushroom manure will create the 'black gold' neighbors will covet. Additional fertilizer is best determined with a soil test.”
Penn State University offers an accurate soil test for $9 through PSU Cooperative Extension offices.
“(Test results) include required amendments to achieve the correct pH and appropriate nutrients soil,” Konvolinka says. “Reputable nurseries or the county cooperative extension office will assist with recommended amendments. Consider compost and soil test-designated fertilizers as the good nutrition for a bountiful harvest.”
Konvolinka says an evenly and regularly watered garden will benefit growth and avoid plant stress. “A light rain will not reach deep roots,” she says. “Using a watering can or garden hose will help to soak to the roots and keep gardens evenly moist. Morning or early-day watering helps to prevent disease and insect damage, while hydrating the plant before the heat of the day.
“The same temperatures we feel comfortable in during summer months are the ones plants will enjoy. If it’s a scorcher of 90-plus degrees and there’s no water to drink, the plant will wilt just like humans.”
There are many advantages to a raised-bed garden. For one thing, it can be set up nearly anywhere, including a parking lot. Another advantage is that they are very easy on your back – no bending over means these types of gardens are preferred by seniors and the physically disabled.
One form of a raised bed is the square-foot garden.
According to Penn State Extension's website, this type of garden will produce “abundant fresh vegetables in a small space with less weeding, no tilling, no heavy digging and less work.”
It is made by building a 4'x4' box, filling it with soil and topping it with a square-foot grid.
The box should be made with non-treated, six-inch lumber as, the website says, “almost all roots or vegetables grow in the top six inches of soil.”
While the actual length of the box is not really important, it is important that you keep the box no wider than four feet – otherwise you will not be able to reach the middle. If you build more than one box, make sure to place them far enough apart to allow for walking and pushing a wheelbarrow.
Next fill the box with soil. Penn State advises a mix of one-third blended compost, one-third peat moss and one-third vermiculite. “This creates a well-drained soil that will hold enough moisture and nutrients for plant growth,” the website says. All ingredients can be found at local farm or gardening stores.
After leveling your box, moisten the soil. When squeezed in your hand, it should stay together, but water should not drip from the dirt.
Place a grid on top of your soil. Nearly anything can work for a grid – wood or plastic strips, even slats from vertical blinds. Attach them where they cross in one-foot by one-foot squares.
Next put in your seeds or small plants, leaving adequate space between.
“Gardening is possible in any amount of space,” Konvolinka says. “A flat open area, a raised bed or a container on a patio, sunny windowsill or porch can help to achieve bountiful vegetable production.”
Veggies can be grown in just about any container as long as it allows for proper drainage.
“Containers are mobile and can be moved to full sun or partial shade. They require drainage holes, new soil from a garden center or nursery and will need light, ¼ strength mixture of 10-10-10 fertilizer throughout the season since water promotes nutrients to drain easily out the holes. Without adequate drainage, roots will rot and plants will not thrive.”
Philip Faranda, owner and operator of Faranda Farm in Hollsopple, has been growing garlic for over a decade. Every year, he hosts a garlic festive at the farm. “Everyone has a stinking good time,” he says.
The festival, which, this year, is scheduled to take place Aug. 15 to 17, includes workshops on how to grow garlic, how to store it and how to use it.
“Being Italian, we were raised eating garlic all the time,” he says. “It is just amazing what garlic does for you and your body.”
Although Faranda is no medical expert, he notes that studies have shown garlic to be good for the heart and, he believes, for immunity. “I read that, during the Black Plague in France, they were literally dying in the streets and they got three prisoners that were sentenced to death to pick up the bodies. They made some sort of concoction using wine and garlic and drank that and they lived.”
Faranda says garlic is very easy to grow. “In October you go out and put it in the ground a couple of inches deep and in the spring it comes up,” he says. “It is dormant all winter, but, as soon as spring breaks, it is out of the ground.”
Garlic can be planted in the spring as well, but, Faranda says, it is not as strong.
For spring planting he recommends getting seed garlic from a farmer's market. “Each clove is a new plant,” he says.
Although using garlic from grocery stores will work “in a pinch,” he says, “most of the garlic you get from the stores is from China.”