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Growing your own food

Jeff Hoover weeds strawberries at his home in Weathersfield. "Typically, I grow tomatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, green beans, Brussels sprouts, melons, strawberries, apples, berries," he said. (Submitted photo)

A sudden resurgence in vegetable gardening has left seeds in short supply.

But once you get them, digging in the dirt provides both stress relief from being cooped up at home and an answer to concerns that the coronavirus outbreak will cause a food shortage, area growing experts said.

“Even outside the pandemic, I think gardening is a good practice for food security and for getting to eat what you want,” said Lee Beers, educator for agriculture and natural resources at The Ohio State University Extension in Cortland. “It’s just a good activity.”

Eric Barrett, educator for agriculture and natural resources at the Mahoning County Extension in Canfield, said, “It gives people something to look forward to — production of fruit, flowers, improving the look of the home and garden for summer enjoyment.”

LONGTIME PASSION

Jeff Hoover of Weathersfield remembers helping his grandmother and father with their gardens when he was a kid.

“Eventually, I took a more active interest and found that I enjoyed working outdoors, the physical activity, showing my vegetables at the fair and growing my own food,” he said.

Fifteen years ago, Hoover, 38, began gardening with his father, and seven years ago, he joined The Ohio State University Master Gardeners Volunteers program.

“Typically, I grow tomatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, green beans, Brussels sprouts, melons, strawberries, apples and berries,” he said.

“Advice I have for first-time gardeners is plan ahead for what crops you want, know what site conditions you have on your property, and get a soil test conducted,” he said.

“Some common errors I see are watering too much or too little, improper use of fertilizer and a lack of research based knowledge when beginning,” he said.

“Consider becoming a Master Gardener or joining other agricultural organizations that can guide you through your first year.”

VARIETY IN CHOICES

People interested in variety can thrive. For example, there are more than 3,000 varieties of tomatoes alone.

Northeast Ohio will grow just about anything that isn’t tropical, Beers said.

“Stick to what you’d be buying in the grocery store,” he said. If that’s green beans, sweet corn, tomatoes and peas, plant them.”

Green beans are one of the most abundant producers. “It’s really hard to mess up planting green beans,” he said.

“For a packet of seeds that cost $1, you get $20 or $30 worth of produce,” Beers said. “If you freeze it or preserve it, you eat fresh produce all year long.”

“The early season crops such as radish, can be put out in the garden soon — as long as the soil is warm, around 50 degrees. Early seeding can be tricky for new gardeners, as cold, wet soils will deter their efforts.

“For many favorites, like tomatoes, wait until after the last chance of frost to put these out in pots or in the garden. Usually, this is sometime around May 10 — but watch the weather to know for sure.”

He recommended consulting the starting times fact sheet at go.osu.edu/ startseeds.

SEED SHORTAGE

If you can find the seeds.

Park Seeds’ normal shipping window is two to three business days. Now it’s up to two weeks, said Kelly Funk, president of Park Seed parent J&P Park Acquisitions.

Burpee Seeds chairman George Ball said this year’s buying spree is “so different that it’s unrecognizable in terms of just the sheer demand.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds stopped taking orders from home gardeners a few weeks back and is only accepting commercial farm orders through April 28.

“We had to prioritize to make sure they had their orders filled,” co-CEO Gretchen Kruysman said.

Home garden orders “wiped out our shelf stock of packets of seeds,” she said. More seeds are readily available, but it takes time to assemble new packets. Social distancing forced the company to cut its labor productivity by about a third.

GETTING STARTED

Once you get seeds, share them, Barrett suggested.

“Many of us don’t need all of the seeds that come in the packs. Plan to swap seeds with a neighbor when you can,” he said.

“For a vegetable garden, it can be as small as a few containers or as large as a person wants,” Barrett said. “For a family, it can be large. But if you’ve never had a garden before, 20 foot by 20 foot is probably plenty.

“For larger plots, think about what you are planting,” Barrett said. “Tomatoes should be planted about 3 feet apart in the row and 4 to 5 feet between rows. Cucumbers take up a lot of space as well.

“Don’t go too big too soon,” Beers said. Too many people start with large projects without having first learned how to manage gardens. Small is a good place to start.

For less than $10 worth of pots, soil and seeds, a person can grow green beans on the balcony, Beers said.

Instead of buying or renting big tillers, laying a tarp or plastic over a patch of land for two to four weeks will kill the growth, allowing you to start turning over the ground underneath with a shovel, little bits at a time. Or use the shovel to cut a slice in the ground, drop in the seed and cover.

Also, invest in a soil test, Barrett said.

“Doing a soil test is one of the best investments as you get started gardening. This tells you whether or not your soil has the necessary nutrients for the best possible vegetables this summer.”

Another possibility: “Transplants save a lot of time — and support our local economy by supporting the local greenhouses that produce these transplants. Prices are reasonable and you’ll get a harvest before you know it,” Barrett said.

PULLING WEEDS

The time investment doesn’t have to be huge. But gardeners can spend hours outdoors just to de-stress from their outside lives.

“For a small garden, it will take about an hour to plan and an hour to plant,” Barrett said. “If the site is brand new, a few more hours of preparation.

“During the season, it only takes about 30 minutes each week to care for a garden this size. Using newspapers and mulch to keep weeds down will help reduce this time even more, but adds some prep time at the beginning of the season.

The biggest time investment in gardening is pulling weeds, Beers said.

Still, that should be about two hours or less per week for starter gardens, especially when using newspapers, cardboard and mulch around plants to keep down the weeds.

Back in Weathersfield, Hoover said however one chooses to do it, he recommends growing gardens, both as a way to relax and for a sure food supply.

“Best wishes to everyone who decides to start home gardening their produce during this stressful time,” Hoover said.

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