Basic human needs include food, water, sleep, shelter and a good Internet connection. There also remains the primal instinct to dig one’s fingers into fertile soil. To personally grow a tasting portion of our favorite produce, whether it’s a pot of herbs on the kitchen counter, cherry tomatoes in a patio garden or a few rows of corn or beans stolen from the once-cultivated grass of our backyards. Sometimes, growing ferns and petunias is just not enough.
This yearning for nano-farming has only increased with the many pandemic lockdowns, introducing us to the solitude semi-rural living. Rich Hanrahan has witnessed this transformation as manager of Gateway Garden Center in Hockessin, where an increasing number of new customers have sought his guidance in finding a way back to the garden. “During COVID, it suddenly became trendy to become gardeners overnight,” he notes. “We had Victory Gardens during World War I and World War II,” says Mike McGrath, host of NPR’s You Bet Your Garden. “COVID is like World War III—and it brought a new generation of Victory Gardens.”
Gardening is simple with a little planning. You’ll need good soil to start, whether it’s a compost-enriched plot in the backyard or a store-bought soil mixture for patio containers and raised beds. You also have to know which plants need lots of water and which ones just a little. The same is true with sunlight, as different plants need different amounts of it. Protection from insects is important, too. How will you kill bugs and treat diseases in the most environmentally sound way?
“Gardening in the flat earth is not a good idea, no matter what your grandfather told you. What you’ll grow is a great crop of weeds.”
Anyone who’s tried to garden in Pennsylvania and Delaware will tell you that the worst challenges are deer, rabbits and groundhogs. If you’ve made it through your first season without having one of them literally eating your lunch, then you’ve done a smart job—or they haven’t yet discovered your garden.
Hanrahan and his fellow growing gurus at local garden centers can help you with all these issues. “The best vegetable gardening is in the ground,” he says. “But you can be more creative with a patio garden or container garden.”
McGrath offers this caveat when it comes to planting directly into yard soil that hasn’t first been composted: “Gardening in the flat earth is not a good idea, no matter what your grandfather told you. What you’ll grow is a great crop of weeds.”
If you have no prior gardening experience, growing vegetables on your back porch or deck is probably the best place to start, even better than the kitchen counter. “The trouble with indoor gardening is getting sufficient light, unless you have a greenhouse with southeast exposure,” Hanrahan says.
Tom Lento has had a few successful seasons of patio gardening in the Wilmington suburbs. “We grow everything on our deck, which is about seven feet off the ground, enough of a deterrent so far to keep local foragers, especially deer, from ravaging the crop,” Lento says. “It’s not, however, high enough to deter frogs.”
For tomatoes, cucumbers and other produce, Lento uses two large Garden Patch GrowBox planters. “They’re virtually foolproof systems for producing large, healthy crops of all kinds of vegetables and flowers— everything from artichokes to zucchinis,” he says. “Our herbs—sweet basil, shiso or Japanese basil, rosemary, parsley, mint— thrive quite happily in a couple of large pots and some potting soil.
The greatest urge for people to garden seems to come in mid-spring, which is often too late to start. Seeds, Hanrahan says, generally need to be planted in February, whether it’s directly in the garden or inside in containers (with the seedlings to be transplanted later). Otherwise, it’s better to buy seedlings at a garden center, at least for the first season as a gardener. “Peas can be planted directly into the soil—ideally before St. Patrick’s Day,” he says
Plant early for lettuces and other leafy vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers, and squash. If you’re planting outside, you may need to cover them to protect them from spring frosts, which generally persist into late April. If you do venture into the yard to make a garden, the best bet is to construct raised beds using sturdy lumber or plasticized boards. “Don’t make these beds any larger than four feet across—three feet, if you’re short,” McGrath says. “Otherwise, you’ll be climbing into the beds” for sewing, weeding or harvesting. Beds can be as long as you want.
“I recommend you do a mixture of 50 percent organic potting soil, 50 percent bagged compost and as much Perlite [those white specks you often see in potted plants] as you can afford,” McGrath says. “Perlite helps drain the soil when you have too much water and preserve moisture when it doesn’t rain.”
Which brings us to watering. “Nobody under-waters plants,” McGrath says. “And people turn to spraying fungicides after they overwater plants and cause diseases.”
Spraying fungicides and insecticides isn’t something McGrath or most other garden experts want to do. Over the past half-century, toxic chemicals and fertilizers have generally made a mess of the environment. McGrath recommends inspecting your plants daily for insect removal, especially those green hornworms that can devastate tomato plants. And he isn’t a fan of fertilizers. “You force the plant to have all this growth, which isn’t natural,” he says. “It will attract insects and, in the case of tomatoes, make them full of water.”
McGrath is a fan of is composting—and he doesn’t use kitchen wastes. Instead, he suggests shredding tree leaves each fall. “Then go to your local barista for coffee grounds,” he says. “Mix them in with the shredded leaves— about 20 percent coffee grounds is ideal. That way, you have nitrogen and carbon both working for you.”
A few added words of advice. Hanrahan warns that carrots and corn don’t fare particularly well locally in typical backyard soil. Tomatoes are another matter. One cherry tomato plant will likely keep a family happy in growing season. Two plants will keep the neighbors in tomatoes, as well.