Stay at home and garden
Tending the garden used to be a part of daily life, but in the modern world, it takes a pandemic for most people to find the time to plant anything.
Gardening can be daunting. There’s so much to consider. Where to begin?
We spoke to Carrie Murphy, extension Educator and program leader at the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension, to learn the basics.
“It all depends on what you want to grow,” Murphy said. “It’s a really good time to do a site assessment and make decisions on how you want to move forward.”
It sounds simple, but identifying areas of your yard by access to light and water is essential in deciding what to plant where. While sunflowers need direct sun, hostas grow happily in shady areas. Lavender thrives in dry soil, while ferns thrive in wet conditions. Most garden vegetables need lots of direct sun and well-drained soil.
“Take advantage of this time to better understand the different areas around your home,” Murphy said.
Murphy is a big advocate of soil testing, which the University of Delaware Cooperative Extensions offer.
“It helps you better understand what type of soil you have, any deficiencies or excess nutrients. Your pH level is important to growing healthy plants – too high or too low can be problematic. Organic matter content is important too,” she said.
Testing your soil will save you time, energy and money. Once you know what your soil is lacking and/or has too much of, you’ll know how you should fertilize.
Assessing light and water is especially important for landscaping.
“Instead of modifying an area to make it different, we suggest slightly improving conditions but selecting plants that do well in the original condition,” Murphy said.
When choosing plants, consider natives. They require less fertilizer, pesticide and water. They are food and shelter for native insects and animals, which isn’t always the case with non-native plants.
“Look for plants that have more than one season of interest,” Murphy said. “Maybe they bloom in the spring but have awesome fall colors. Or maybe they attract butterflies in the summer and have interesting bark to look at in the winter.”
A major planting window is coming around Mother’s Day, or when the threat of frost has passed for the season.
“That’s when you plant things like tomatoes, zucchini, beans – all those crops you’re familiar with that like the hotter weather,” Murphy said.
A trendy way to garden right now is in raised beds, which can be helpful for people who can’t easily squat or kneel. Murphy is a fan, and online there are plenty of easy ways to construct them.
If you live in an apartment complex or an urban area, you might not have a yard. You might not have enough space for a raised bed. In that case, container planting works just as well as any other method.
“Container planting is a great way to get started, even if you just want to dabble a bit,” Murphy said. “Plus, they’re portable and it’s really gratifying.”
You can start plants indoors and then transplant them outside, or seed them directly into the ground. The best decision differs for each different plant.
“Tomatoes you would want to start from transplants. Something like beans, you can direct sow. It just depends on the plant,” Murphy said.
One of the best resources to know exactly what a plant needs is, believe it or not, the back of the seed packet. The University of Delaware Cooperative Extension website, and the websites of other universities’ cooperative extensions, also offer information on the vast variety of plants you may want to grow.
Here to help
The University of Delaware Cooperative Extension master gardeners are glad to answer any questions you have. Contact the helpline according to county:
- Sussex 302-856-2585 x535
- Kent 302-730-4000
- New Castle 302-831-8862
Submit your questions online at https://www.udel.edu/extension/ask.
Native plants for your yard
- Virginia sweetspire – Shrub 3-5 feet high. White fragrant flowers in summer and lasting red fall color.
- Bayberry – Rounded shrub 5-12 feet tall. Leathery leaves are semi-evergreen and aromatic.
- Eastern ninebark – Shrub grows 5-9 feet. White flat-topped flower clusters in late spring and interesting exfoliating (peeling) bark.
- Highbush blueberry – Shrub that grows 6-12 feet tall. White urn-shaped flowers, blue fruit and brilliant red color in fall.
- Joe Pye weed – Grows 6-7 feet tall with huge rounded purple flowers in late summer. Attracts butterflies.
- Butterfly milkweed – Grows to 1-3 feet. Tight clusters of yellow to orange flowers. Particularly attractive to butterflies.
- Wild hydrangea – Shrub 3-5 feet tall. Large clusters of white flowers in June.
- Elderberry – Shrub, 5-12 feet. Large cream or white flowers and purple berries in summer. Attracts birds.
- Red twig dogwood – Shrub that grows 7-9 feet tall. Beautiful red stems in winter.
- Garden phlox – Perennial 2-3 feet high with lavender or white flowers that bloom through summer.
- Blue vervain – 4-6 feet with violet blue flowers in late summer.
- Blazing star – 3 feet tall, spikes covered with mauve-purple flowers in late summer.
- Christmas fern – One foot tall evergreen fern. Tough and undemanding.
Source: University of Delaware’s “Plants for a Livable Delaware”
Vegetable gardening for beginners
- Determine which area on your property has the most suitable conditions for gardening.
- Find out the space requirements for the vegetables you are planting. Plan your garden on paper.
- Determine which vegetables you want to plant are best started from transplants and which are best planted as seeds. Buy accordingly.
- Test soil and fertilize accordingly. Remove sticks, stones and other debris. Till and rake the garden area.
- Stake your rows. Use stakes or sticks with twine or string tied between them to mark rows.
- Dig to depth advised on back of seed packet. For transplants, better to plant too high than too low.
- Keep your empty seed packets handy or make notes for proper care techniques and to know when to expect to harvest your vegetables.
- Fertilize depending on your soil analysis and the type of plant. Read fertilizer labels carefully.
- Examine your plants regularly for pest damage. Use pesticides only as a last resort and read and re-read the label carefully.
- Plant flowers nearby to encourage natural pest predators like ladybugs.
- A fence around your garden may be necessary if you have larger pests like squirrels, groundhogs, rabbits and deer.
- Weed regularly, taking care not to disturb your vegetables’ roots.
- The ideal method of watering your garden is with a hose. Beware of irregular watering patterns with sprinklers. Plants need about an inch of water per week.
Source: Delaware Cooperative Extension’s “Vegetable Garden Basics”