By JOSE GERMAN
For Montclair Local
Jose German is an environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and
Montclair resident. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.
Spring is here in full force, as is the quarantine. The mood has shifted from near shock to uncertainty. For those fortunate enough to have a yard, the shutdown has increased our appreciation for this bit of open space more than ever.
I have heard stories from local gardeners of how their gardens are saving them from the depression and traumatic stress of the pandemic. In previous articles, I discussed the therapeutic value of gardening in difficult times, like mourning the loss of a loved one or while facing stress at work. Let’s use this therapy to heal and manage those feelings in our present situation.
Tending gardens brings welcome distraction and relaxation, reducing our anxieties and fears. Our whole world has been changed at a personal level by the force of the pandemic. Some are jobless, others in essential jobs are working in high-stress environments, and others are fortunate to keep their jobs and work from home.
In one way or another, many of us are suddenly living in an almost virtual world. With adults working from home and children studying online, the whole family is confined in close quarters, and parents are feeling overwhelmed.
Nothing beats gardening during this quarantine. If you have a vegetable garden, the spring weather is perfect for planting your veggies. If you don’t yet have a vegetable garden, creating one is a fun and practical activity.
Think you don’t have a “green thumb”? You do, if you follow some basics for successful vegetable gardening.
- 1. Look for a spot in your yard with at least six hours of direct sun.
- 2. Prepare the ground. It works better if you can create raised beds made out of natural wood or artificial “wood” made from recycled material (recommended size: 4 feet by 5 feet).
- 3. Soil is the foundation of your garden. Get good organic soil and amend it with compost, following instructions to spread it evenly in your garden beds.
- 4. Start planting. Until mid-May, focus on cool-weather crops. It’s not too late to start some of them from seed, like lettuce, arugula, and radishes – just be sure to keep them moist until they sprout. For others, such as kale, broccoli, collards, and chard, you can speed up the process with seedlings from local sources.
- 5. By mid-May, it’s time to plant warm-weather crops, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, and basil. At this point, it’s best to plant these as seedlings. Pole beans and bush beans can be started from seed as the soil warms.
- 6. Some companion plants, such as marigolds and parsley, are good additions to vegetable beds, helping to repel insect pests. Groundhogs and other problem mammals detest mint and oregano, so these plants may provide some protection. These two herbs, however, are extremely invasive in the garden and should be planted in pots.
- 7. Use a thick layer of straw as mulch to control weeds and conserve water.
Flower gardens enhance the beauty of your surroundings and, if designed properly, can serve as pollinator gardens, bringing your yard to life, supporting the environment, and giving an assist to your vegetables. All in all, a great respite in these stressful times.
To create a flower garden with maximum beauty and value for pollinators, follow these steps:
- Select perennials. I recommend native plants for their benefits to pollinators and birds as well as their beauty. Choose plants that bloom at different times through the season, creating a sequence lasting from spring through fall.
- Match the plants with the location. Consider the amount of sunlight, moisture, and soil quality. Good nursery catalogs will give you this information.
- Look for value to pollinators. Be sure to include butterfly host plants, like milkweed for Monarchs, golden Alexanders for Black Swallowtails, and violets for fritillaries.
- When planting perennials, keep some separation between them (12 inches works for most plants). Plant the taller plants in the back and lower ones in front to create a cascade effect.
- Ground covers such as violets, foam flowers, wild ginger, golden groundsel, wild geraniums, coral bells, and creeping phlox will fill spaces between the taller plants, adding interest and reducing weeding.
- A thick layer of mulch, such as shredded leaves or cedar mulch, conserves moisture and helps control weeds. It’s also time to replenish last year’s mulch.
Use your time in gardens for relaxation and light exercise. Don’t overdo it. Start small and gradually expand. Divide maintenance into a series of small projects. Work a little every day and you will have a beautiful garden by summer.
Take time to relax and watch your garden thrive. Listen to the bird song, enjoy the warming spring weather, and watch for arriving pollinators.
Grab a book and your favorite drink, settle into a shady spot, relax, and connect with nature.