Tuesday, January 5, 2021 10:29 AM
Like the rest of the world, the garden industry was turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. Somewhere around 18 million new gardeners rose up like weeds in a vacant lot and caused an interruption in seed supplies in early spring. It wasn’t that the seeds were unavailable; they just hadn’t been packaged up and there wasn’t enough staff to handle the flood of orders that came in as visions of wide-spread food shortages filled peoples heads and they began to plan victory gardens. Bees and beekeeping supplies also were in high demand, as were backyard chicken coops and baby chicks to fill them. As more people quarantined and home became the office, the schoolroom, and the source of outdoor recreation, an increase in home cooking and the fear of food scarcity made backyard vegetable gardening a natural choice for people who’d previously regarded their yard as a place to mow the lawn and plant a few shrubs and annuals.
I first noticed a rash of new swimming pools under construction in April 2020. Money not spent on spring-break trips to Orlando was clearly being invested in at-home amusements. Following the pools came construction of new pergolas and gazebos, sunroom additions and greenhouses. As the summer progressed and weather cooled, fire pits and fireplaces sprang up. All of these additions further reduced useless lawn and replaced it with spaces for entertaining and relaxing. The pool and fire pit areas in turn called for landscaping — a hedge or fence for privacy or delineation of the area, raised beds for vegetables, some naturalized areas of shrubs and wildflowers for pollinators and birds. Yes, we lost a lot in 2020, but gained some things: an increase in self-reliance and awareness of the value of spending more time outside enjoying the natural world. It wasn’t all voluntary, but it has given us a chance to reset our priorities, to make it better out there for all living things.
Last spring, favorite seed varieties were sold out online, and store seed racks were riddled with empty slots. Our favorite garden stand switched to online pre-ordering of all their vegetable, herb and flower sets, so we weren’t able to wander through their overflowing greenhouse to see for ourselves that one variety of basil was clearly several weeks ahead of another or one tomato variety particularly lush and healthy. It was a disappointment, but we looked around and made do. We raised early cabbage when late varieties were not to be found, planted different kinds of marigolds and other annual flowers and a leek variety found in scruffy, desiccated bundles at the local hardware store, which serendipitously grew to twice the size of our usual choice. We gratefully accepted leftover leggy tomato plants from friends, nurtured volunteer sunflowers that popped up in the garden from the previous year, and tossed every out-of-date seed we had into the soil, hoping for the best.
It’s highly likely that the same kind of flexibility in garden planning will be needed in 2021. People have already begun perusing seed and nursery catalogs, placing orders, and planning ahead, and I’ve noticed popular seed varieties are already back-ordered. Seed companies say they are better stocked and ready for increased sales, but it doesn’t hurt to start buying early.
If you’ve ever thought you’d like to start your own flower and vegetable plants, this would be the year to begin. If you can, get together with friends and choose different varieties to start and then have a private plant exchange when spring comes. It’s also a good idea to think about selecting some open-pollinated varieties so you can experiment with saving seeds as a hedge against shortages.
This is the year to start composting, if you haven’t already. Shortages and food insecurity have raised our consciousness of waste and recycling, and composting turns leftover food scraps into the best soil amendment. It’s been said that if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions — another reason to keep our food scraps out of the trash. So get yourself a countertop container and some kind of outdoor bin to start your own pile, or put your scraps in a five-gallon recycled joint compound bucket that can travel to the local transfer station for community composting.
Don’t feel these suggestions are preparation for Armageddon. We’re not talking survivalist mode, just heading into the next garden season with increased flexibility and resilience. Look forward to planting more flowers, more vividly colored vegetables, some exotic herbs or sizzling hot peppers. It may feel like winter, but it’s time to think garden.
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