Gardening in the time of COVID-19
Many of us are largely shut down now. The Oregon State University Extension Service Office in Columbia County has been closed to face-to-face public since March 16, though we are all still working from home. We are answering phone calls and emails and working on other projects that have been on the back burner for some time. Unfortunately, the annual OSU Master Gardener Spring Fair (aka "Tomato Sale") has been canceled. There was no way around it given the strong chance that our communities will still be at least partially shut down.
The COVID-19 outbreak has created a lot of collateral damage for Oregon and Columbia County. People have been let go and unemployment is climbing fast. When money doesn't circulate, it is like a heart attack to the economic system. This can reverse quickly if the affected businesses can find the cash to start back up once the quarantine has been lifted. But that isn't always easy.
We have been getting a lot of questions about food availability, food cost, and food safety. My sense is that the overall food system is intact. Outside of fresh produce, the movement of wheat, beef, chicken, pork, rice, sugar, dry beans, and the many other staples in our diet has been efficient. That's because it takes surprisingly few people in this country to feed us, from the farmers to the processors to the shippers and then to the shelf stockers in the stores. Outside of some hoarding behaviors, and perhaps stores not being ready for the closing of restaurants, food is still there and should get better as people's fears are allayed. The weak link is fresh produce. This requires more labor to harvest. If that is intact, fresh produce will be in stores.
Which brings us to another question: Is it possible to get COVID-19 from fresh produce? The answer is no. It either doesn't survive well on moist organic materials and/or the pathways and all the cooling and cleaning that goes on before shipping basically eliminates it. Either way, produce is safe!
With more people out of work, local food supplies can be more important. If you haven't grown a garden recently, or ever, try one this year. Even a 10-by-10 garden can produce an amazing amount of fresh food. You can have lots of green beans, abundant tomatoes, perfect peppers, and plenty of greens like lettuce, chard, kale and others to make your home cooking shine. If you want to try a larger garden, consider one 20 x 20 feet which at 400 square feet gives you more space to grow for both the summer and winter storage. You could plant more tomatoes for canning or to freeze, grow wonderful winter squash like the Butternut that can last six months or more, and have left over kale, cabbage, lettuce and chard to take you into December.
Is it time to start your garden if you are starting from scratch? Maybe, but the soils are a little soggy yet. If the area is currently covered with grass, it would be worthwhile to cover your proposed garden plot with tarps or black plastic to weaken and kill some of the grass. This would need to be started right away. Leave it on until the middle of April or even early May. Then check how wet the soil is and decide whether it is ready to dig or roto-till. If the dirt can be squished in your hand into a ball that doesn't easily come apart, it is too wet. Be patient. Tilling soil that hasn't yet drained enough will produce clods that can haunt you for years if you try to till it. You don't want that!
Your vegetables will need some nitrogen fertilizer to get rolling. About one-half pound per 100 square feet should be enough. To calculate for the fertilizer (organic or conventional), look at the first number on the bag. That is the percentage of nitrogen in that fertilizer. Take the number of pounds needed per 100 square feet (one-half pound) and divide it by the percentage on the bag. So, if it is .5/.16, that equals about three pounds of the fertilizer per 100 square feet. If the first number is 7, it would be .5/.07, which equals about seven pounds of that fertilizer in the same area. See, it isn't that hard!
Sprinkle the fertilizer evenly over the soil before you till. You can judge how much by remembering that "a pint is a pound the world around." It is a rough guide. So, the three pounds in the first example would equal three pints on a 100-square-foot area.
Once the soil is tilled, you are ready to plant. That raises the question, seeds or transplants, or both? I like transplants for tomatoes, peppers and even early-season lettuce. Direct seeded crops include lettuce, kale, chard, green beans, corn, cabbage, broccoli, summer and winter squash, and quite a few others. Try to plant as the weather is warming, if possible. It makes the seeds germinate so much faster.
As the seeds are coming up, you have to weed around your vulnerable seedlings. Weeds are crafty. Their seeds germinate faster that most of your crop seeds. They grow faster, too, and start to shade your seedlings! Seedlings without sun are like fish thrown out of water. They are doomed. The first three weeks you weed after you seed is the most important time you will spend in the garden. If you get your vegetables off to a good start, they will produce well for you.
For experienced gardeners, please grow extra rows for your friends that may need it and for the food bank. It can make life so much better for people working hard to get back on their feet. Also, consider a donation to either the food bank and/or United Way. This is the time all our supportive resources will be tested.
If you want some great practical gardening information, see "Grow Your Own," an Oregon State University publication you can find online. If you have questions, please feel free to email or call and leave me a message.
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