As Hoosiers adjust to sheltering at home, many looking for healthy activities and safe, sustainable food sources are turning to growing their own gardens.
Home vegetable gardening has been gaining in popularity every year since the financial crisis of 2008. According to the National Gardening Association, one in three households in the U.S. are now growing food, with the 18- to 35-year-old age group increasing every year.
Besides driving away boredom during home isolation, home gardening has many physical, mental health, economic and environmental benefits, said Tamara Benjamin, assistant program leader for Purdue University Extension in diversified farming and food systems.
“Home gardens are the three-legged stools of sustainability — social, economic and environmental,” she said. “We are creating a biodiverse area that becomes a part of the community.”
Benjamin earned her PhD in home gardening and has turned her front yard into a garden with more than 60 varieties of fruits and vegetables. She has also taught a class for many years in farm planning.
“Gardens create an economic incentive for somebody,” she said. “You can start producing your own fruits and vegetables that you can eat yourself and you’re not buying.”
Home gardens also create access to healthy foods that some may not have readily available.
“At the onset, you’re inviting your family, neighbors, to increase their consumption of healthy food,” said Jodee Ellett, the community engagement leader for Indiana University’s Sustainable Food Systems Science. “By increasing home gardening, whole households are by nature increasing their consumption of and access to a variety of healthy foods.”
The earlier children taste healthy food, the more they have an appetite for it in the long run, said Ellett, who steers the Indiana Food Council Network, which helps local food councils build a better food supply chain for Indiana.
Home gardens also create a social activity either within the household or with neighbors who may stop and ask questions about what has been planted.
“You start interacting with your community members, you’re teaching kids about where their food comes from. You’re explaining what a raspberry bush is, what is tastes like,” said Benjamin.
Home gardening also has the added benefits of reducing noise pollution, lessening carbon dioxide in the environment and helping to maintain natural ecosystems.
“I would say our little tiny home garden does more to capture soil carbon and recycle water than most of the lawns that are here,” Benjamin said. “Almost every year we get really hard rains, and all that water gets completely absorbed within our little home garden. All of that water is percolating back into the aquifer and it’s just not running off and into the river.”
For those interested in starting a garden now, it might be difficult to find seeds.
The seed buying season is generally January to March, with sales tampering off by the end of the month as planting begins. However, this year seed companies are seeing a huge increase in demand, and sales are continuing to peak as buyers start gardens to stay busy or to provide for an uncertain future.
Seed companies are filling orders, but shipping times are taking a bit longer than usual given the demand. Garden centers are open and also seeing brisk traffic.
“Economics shows that panic buying is a reality, and supply and demand is affected by these emotional states that we get into,” Benjamin said. “We’re just in a really weird time right now, where people aren’t really sure what to think, so they’re reacting to the potential of what they think could happen to them in the future.”
However, most seeds are viable only for a year, and Benjamin said it’s concerning to see people buying up seeds that they might not use, or that they might be selling for a higher price.
She said it’s better for new gardeners to start small with containers or a raised bed.
“You’re controlling how much you’re producing, how many weeds you have to deal with, the water you have to water everything with, all of those things,” she said.
It’s also important to consider what vegetables to plant and the environmental conditions in the garden area, including climate and soil. Online resources can help determine the best plants for each region and the best planting time for each plant.
Benjamin said a lot of people plant zucchini but don’t realize how overwhelming the plant can be.
“If you don’t have a lot of great zucchini recipes and know how you’re going to eat the zucchini, you’re probably not going to be very happy and waste your money, time and resources tending to that zucchini plant,” she said. “So, I would definitely think about the things you like.”
Benjamin recommends gardeners test the soil for contaminants before planting. Soil testing can cost between $10-20, depending on the type of tests run. She also advises gardeners to understand the amount of time and maintenance a garden will take.
“Do you head out for two weeks every summer to go vacation somewhere? Who’s going to take care of that?” she said. “It’s kind of like having a pet. You can’t just leave it and expect to come back and it’s still alive. I’m a huge proponent of home gardening, but I think it’s something you also have to want to be doing and have the labor and right conditions to do it.”
There is also an initial cost to starting a garden. If that is a hindrance, then Ellett says a community garden might be a good option.
“People can get started without a huge upfront investment,” she said. “Generally, there is a tool shed with everything you need, and you can just go to the garden and garden there. You can also ask questions, share information and, as the name implies, build a community.”
Ellett said that even though life is more stressful because of the coronavirus, she hopes some good will come from it as people regain connectivity to where food comes from and how it is grown.
“It will be interesting with COVID-19 to see the impact it has on home cooking and the interest in home gardening,” she said. “What I hope is that it will bring out all of this older knowledge that we have in our communities in gardening and self-sufficiency and inspire people who have to be at home, because we are social distancing, to rethink what we do at home and what we do with our yard.”