Growing at Home:
A Gardening Guide for Socially Distant Times

While these are unprecedented times, we can still look forward to the bounty that will come with this season’s harvest. Soon, we will be able to bring vine-ripened tomatoes, freshly picked peas, and hand-harvested peppers into our kitchens. Following stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines means most of us have been spending lots of time at home. At the same time, the weather is getting warmer, the days longer. There has never been a better time to start a garden. 

While The Food Project’s farms and greenhouses are currently closed to the public, and we cannot welcome volunteers or youth onto our farms for the time being, The Food Project’s work and mission are still in full swing. We are planning modified versions of our annual seedling sales to get you the supplies you need, and wanted to reach out with some tips for how you can grow at home. 

Preparing Your Garden

Deciding Where to Plant Your Garden
Pick a spot that gets a lot of sun. Most vegetables need at least eight hours of full sun each day to grow. Depending on the space you have available, decide the structure of your garden. Will you put large containers outside on a patio or deck? Build a raised bed? Plant right into the soil? Raised beds are a great idea, especially in urban settings, as many lots in the city have lead-contaminated soils. On our city farms, we grow in a thick compost layer on top of heavy-duty landscaping fabric over the base soil layer. If you are unsure about the quality of the soil, you can send a sample out for a test. 

Planting in Containers
If you are using containers, make sure the pots have drainage holes. Cover the holes with small rocks or pebbles to ensure that excess water can drain. Keep in mind that soil in smaller pots will require more frequent watering. 

Planting in a Raised-Bed Garden
To make a raised bed, build a square or rectangle out of wood planks that have not been pressure treated. Other options for creating the walls of the bed include rocks, paving stones, and cinder blocks. Your bed should be at least 10 inches deep. Line the bottom of the bed with a heavy-duty landscape fabric. Fill your bed with a mix of half soil and half compost. Make sure to use high-quality soil and compost. Just like with baking a cake, the better the ingredients, the better the results! 

For more information on building your own raised bed, visit The Food Project’s Build-a-Garden Guide

Planting Directly in the Ground
If you are concerned your soil might be contaminated with soil, you can send samples to be tested by either the Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory at the University of Connecticut or the Analytical Laboratory and Maine Soil Testing Service at the University of Maine. 

If you are sure the soil in your yard is safe and you want to plant directly in the ground, use the double digging method to mix and fluff up your soil ahead of the growing season. This aerates the soil and allows roots to push through. Double digging is a method that rotates the top layer of soil and loosens the layer right below it. You can find a tutorial here.

Mix compost into the soil to add nutrients to your growing medium. Add as much compost as you have—you can’t really add too much! If you can’t access compost, buy organic fertilizer and follow the instructions on the container to improve the health of the soil. 

Starting Seeds Indoors

If you want to start your own seedlings, you will need seeds, potting soil, containers, and sun or a light source. Your plants will have a higher chance of survival if you start them inside. Starting seedlings indoors also has the added benefit of giving you a head-start on the season since you can transplant your seedlings outside as soon as the weather is warm enough. Some seeds can be started as early as March 1st. Others benefit from a later start. 

Finding the Right Containers
For containers, you can repurpose many different things that you might find lying around the house, including egg cartons, yogurt cups and other plastic tubs, toilet paper rolls, strawberry containers, and more. Pack your chosen container with potting soil or a seed starting mix and level off the top. 

Plant seeds at a depth of about 1.5 times the length of the seed. Check seed packets for further directions. Lightly water and place near a light source. You can use a southern-facing sunny window, place them under grow lights, or bring them outside during the day if it is warm. Monitor the containers daily to be sure that the soil remains damp.

When the seedlings begin to sprout, thin them so there is only one in each cell. (An egg carton would have 12 “cells”). Your seedlings are ready to transplant when they develop three to four true leaves, the leaves that start to develop after the first few that pop up. 

Hardening Off and Transplanting
Before you transplant them outside, it is a good idea to “harden off” your seedlings to prepare them for the new environment they will encounter outside. Bring them to a shady spot outdoors for a little while every day. (Be sure to bring them inside when it cools off in the evening.) You can also reduce the amount of water you give your seedlings before planting them outside.

To transplant, dig a hole in the soil slightly larger than the container in which the seedling is growing. Carefully pry the entire plant and the surrounding soil out of the pot. Generally, it helps to turn the plant upside down and apply gentle pressure to the bottom—the root ball should slide out. When transplanting, make sure you leave plenty of room between each plant for them to grow! Most seed packets will give you guidance about how far apart to plant your seedlings. 

Direct Seeding into Your Garden

Some plants can be seeded directly into your garden. Typically, you should direct seed beans, beets, carrots, melons, peas, radishes, spinach, squash, turnips, and zucchini. Follow the directions on the seed packet for the planting time and recommended spacing. 

Maintaining Your Garden

Water the garden as needed to keep the soil moist. During hot days, it is a good idea to water in the morning or in the evening so the water does not evaporate as quickly and has a chance to absorb into the soil. 

Add a layer of mulch around your plants to keep the soil moist, reduce the need for watering, and to suppress weeds. You can use leaves, wood chips, pine needles, and grass clippings from untreated lawns for mulch as well. 

Weed your garden regularly. Try to remove the weeds when they are small and before they have a chance to grow. 

Harvest! This is the moment you have been working for! 

For more information, feel free to check out our other handy guides and resources.