Well, we spent day 2 here in self-isolation putting in a large vegetable garden. Who knows what the next few months will bring. It's starting to sound like a lockdown until mid-May is not impossible, though hopefully we can all pull together and flatten that curve sooner. Here, we have two much loved "high-risk" people in our family, and we have lots of friends out there who are in risk categories as well, so we're just thinking, okay, COVID-19 projects, and it's never a bad idea to be a little more self-sufficient.
I grew up on 40-acres in Maine and off-grid, so this is dusting off old skills for me. I still can hundreds of pounds of tomatoes each Labour / Labor Day, because they taste a whole lot letter, and we have grape vines so I make (humble brag) some pretty decent pickles (tannins are the trick to making them crunchy).
If you're thinking you'd like to start a garden, now is the time, and we thought we'd post here a few basics if you're new to this. As my husband reminds me, not everyone grew up off the grid in the woods with a grandfather (rest his soul) who was an unrepentant poacher. (Dear RCMP, please note: we are not. Thanks!) We're also farmers here on the island, and while grapes are our main crop the principles are the same and so are the rookie mistakes. (We've made them all; let us save you some crying.) If you have questions, please ask away, and we'll do our best to help.
Here's our "Five Things You Gotta Do To Put In a COVID 19 Victory Garden," super basic version.
1. It's not how much space you have that matters. You can grow a lot in a little space. The key things you have to ask yourself are: 1) do you have light; 2) do you have water; and 3) do you have organic matter.
Light: you want something sheltered from the wind, with good south / west exposure ideally. You don't want a lot of shade, though a little in our intense light-filled summers isn't a bad thing depending on the crop.
Water: you need to be able to water daily. We are still getting some rain on the island, so you can set up a rain barrel from your eaves to catch rain water (which is better than city water), but if you do, remember that siphons and gravity work down hill. Put your barrel up hill from your garden or prepare to lug yourself some water. Or if you have city water, that's fine too. Ideally you'd use it to fill your up hill rain barrel and let it sit for 24 hours, while all the chlorine in the city water evaporates, but look, nature finds a way. Don't stress. Just have access to easy water and think that through.
Organic Matter: you cannot cheat on this. If you put your poor tomatoes in crap soil that turns to adobe clay by July, they will die a long and painful death. You do not want that on your conscience. You need organic matter. That means, in practice, manure, compost and compost teas (more on that another time). But right now, if you're thinking about planting this week and how to get through The End Times, prep your site and ask someone to deliver you their premium garden blend. It's not expensive, and the guy who will dump it for you doesn't want to talk to you or get your germs either. You can buy this stuff at the garden store, but honestly you need a lot of it and it's WAY less expensive by the yard, delivered right where you want it.
2. Site preparation is everything. You cannot cheat on this either. You need to fence your garden, or the rabbits and deer will eat it all. You will cry tears of despair. That will make your face all blotchy. Not a good look for The End Times. So fence it off. Ugly fences are fine. They just have to work. So you need to get metal fence posts, some wire fencing, ideally with holes not more than 2' square, some wire twine, and some wire cutters. The posts will pound in right now pretty easily even with a hammer. There's a fancy tool we use, but you can do it with a hammer, just wear some gloves and get someone to hold it straight for you. You run the fencing along the posts, secure it with wire, and the key thing to remember is you have to bend some of the fencing back (6' or so) and run it along the ground so the rabbits don't dig under. You can either do it all in one run and patch it after. We're not looking for perfect here, we're looking for it working.
Then, you have to kill the grass and remove the weeds. If you don't, you will be growing dandelions and not cabbages. You can hand till it all and pull those weeds. Or you can cheat on this and get a garden in this week. Cheat #1: order enough garden mix to give you 6" deep. Take old newspapers, lay them down on top of your lawn, making sure they overlap, and put the garden mix on top. As the roots grow down, they will break through the newspaper, and the newspaper will smother the grass. Cheat #2 do the same thing will landscape fabric. The downside here is that landscape fabric is more expensive, ultimately plastic, and you will have to cut holes around the plants to let their roots grow down (so you more or less have to start with seedlings and not seeds). Soil preparation is the right way to do it, but newspaper works if you want to get moving, that's all we're saying here.
3. Seeds and seedlings. Realistically, you are going to need a mix. So make a garden plan, kit up in your COVID19 battle gear, and get prepared to make one foray to the garden store. On Vancouver Island, it's still too early for seedlings, so we're talking early April here, and who knows if that's going to be allowed. So for the moment, leave yourself a row in case you can get starts for things that you really need a greenhouse or seedlings for, and let's focus on what you can put in TODAY.
You can put in right now on Vancouver Island, assuming your site is prepped and fenced: beans, peas, corn, lettuce, broccoli, herbs, wheat, potatoes, garlic, onions, cabbage, nasturtium, spinach, kale, and squash. You are pushing your luck right now with anything tender, by which we mean tomatoes, peppers, eggplants.
Most of those seeds you can find easily, even at Canadian Tire if you need (though I'd strongly suggest a garden store and getting something open pollinated so you can save the seeds if needed). You can use onions, potatoes, and possibly garlic that you have right now as starts if you bought organic plants that weren't totally irradiated. If you have an onion that starts to go soft and pushes green: plant it. If you want dozens of potatoes, take a potato and let it sit outside in the sun somewhere moist and warm for a few days. It will start pushing green from the "eyes". Cut it up: each eye is a baby if you plant it. Garlic you can divided each clove and plant them, again assuming you didn't get some kind of garlic where it was killed before it got to you. (No harm trying.)
With the rest, follow the instructions on the packets. You can't cheat on beans: you do need to soak them overnight to get them to germinate. Beans, peas, corn, squash and wheat are easy from seed. The others are either in your pantry or in the stores now as seedlings
4. Companion Plantings and Bugs: My best advice is that you want to make a garden plan before you start planting. First, you want to google companion plantings (and non-companion plantings). Some plants--like beans, corn, squash, the "Three Sisters"--help each other. Some swap diseases and need social distancing. So do your research. Then get out there with a bit of garden twine and some popsicle sticks, and mark out your rows so you have some basic kind of grid to follow. From there, plan strategically. And do this BEFORE you start planting!
You will have bugs. They will try to eat your plants before you do. Welcome to farming. But there are all sorts of homemade remedies you can find by googling as well. Baking soda, strong white vinegar, vegetable oil, and castile soap are all things to have in your arsenal if you can. You may have to remove bugs by hand in a pinch. They will not survive a dip in a Mason jar filled with a bit of vinegar, just sayin'. But you can save yourself a lot of bug trouble by planting the right things in advance, not just good companions but plants that will help one plant fight off diseases that to which it's susceptible.
5. Return It, Store It: You need a compost heap. Something not near your house if you can manage it. You can build a fancy wooden thing, or even buy some vastly expensive gizmo. But you can also have a heap in the corner of your lot. On it, you put everything except meat (that needs to go in a garbage can vermiculture project or in the green waste for collection, otherwise you will get rats). Anything non-meat, you dump on the pile, and each time you dump you add a shovel full of your soil (keep a pile handy) and a garden bucket of water. In a few months, you'll give it a toss over, but for the moment the key thing is to compost it.
And you need to have a plan now for what you are doing to do with 100 pounds of squash. It over winters well. Maybe your COVID 19 project is a root cellar in your garage? But you can also parboil it, chop it, and freeze it. Tomatoes and cucumbers are easy and safe to can. Anything canned in vinegar or that is high acid is safe for a beginner. Low acid foods are not the place for newbies. Now might be the time to stock up on some Mason jars, lids, and a big pot (tall enough to hold the jars and still have a few inches of boiling water). They are a quarter at the local thrift stores at the moment. Potatoes and onions store well in cardboard boxes and newspaper for months. Peas go in the freezer. But let's get real: we aren't thinking we need to store all this food right now. We can cross that bridge in August or September if we need to. For the moment, if you have space and inclination, it's enough to keep your family in fresh veggies and lettuce until we all get through this thing.
Stay safe and be healthy out there. We're rooting hard for all of us. #BCStrong