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Farm Fresh—in your corner

Homegrown tips and advice for gardens of all sizes

With so many people staying at home under coronavirus restrictions, a number of homespun hobbies are seeing a resurgence in popularity, from baking to sewing to dusting off that old guitar and learning some new songs. Near the top of the list is gardening. Suppliers across the nation are reporting a surge in demand for seeds and other supplies at a level not seen since the 2008 recession.

It’s no surprise that gardening is having such a heyday. Many people are looking to grow vegetables as a way to save money and bolster food availability during economic and supply chain uncertainty. Others are simply embracing a forgotten yet rewarding pastime.

In addition to being a soothing hobby, gardening is a sustainable way to provide safe and healthy food for you and your community. If you’re taking up gardening, whether in a large backyard or a small container, read on for tips and advice—home grown right here at UMass Amherst.

Getting started

According to Joe Swartz ’86, vice president and lead horticulturalist at AmHydro in Amherst, the best advice for people new to gardening is to start simple. “People often tend to overcomplicate things. Focus on crops that you enjoy or crops that lend themselves well to storing or freezing for consumption later. Try not to focus on exotic planters or complex planting schedules, but rather on devoting sufficient space for your crops to grow and for you to effectively move around the garden to tend them.”

Once you’ve identified some plants you’d like to grow, Swartz recommends watching online videos or reading articles to learn about the essentials of planting and caring for your plants. The UMass Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment (CAFE) website is a great resource for this type of information, with fact sheets on many common vegetables and other plants you may wish to grow.

Once you’ve started your garden, Swartz recommends trying to spend a little time there each day. “This is probably the most common problem I see in gardening: the lack of regular weeding, watering, and fertilizing. Gardening is a marathon, not a sprint! Spend a small amount of time each day and you will be rewarded with a better garden.”

Small is beautiful

And what about people living in apartments or other small spaces who don’t have a backyard to grow in? Much of the same advice applies, says Swartz. “Again, start simple!” Look for varieties of vegetables that are well suited to being grown in containers near a sunny window or on a balcony or fire escape. “With small spaces, grow small plantings and focus on regularly maintaining them.” Tomatoes or bush varieties of cucumbers are some good options to try. For the tightest of spaces, a windowsill herb garden offers a burst of flavor and greenery in a compact space.

Branching out

For experienced gardeners, it’s still important to focus on regular weeding, crop maintenance, irrigation, and fertilization, says Swartz. “So often, even veteran gardeners do not reach their yield potential because they do not regularly attend to their crops' needs.”

If you’ve already mastered growing lush leafy greens and prize-winning tomatoes, why not try something new? With advice from UMass experts, you can explore the wide world of heirloom varieties, add some fruit plantings to the mix, or try out techniques to extend the growing season.

No matter how much space or experience you have, gardening is the ideal hobby during this time of stay-at-home orders and social distancing. Not only can growing your own produce help you save money, but getting your hands in the dirt and watching your plants grow can give you a sense of connection—something we all need right now. Plus, nothing tastes better than the produce you’ve grown yourself, fresh from the garden!