Planting roots: Gardening while staying at home

An overhead view of four different greens.
A selection of greens ready to plant in a garden. Here are a few tips for getting a small veggie garden going at home amid a pandemic.
Courtesy of Julie Weisenhorn

Updated: April 10, 3:20 p.m.

If you’re staying at home during the pandemic and have a little more time on your hand, you might want to consider starting a small vegetable garden.

“When you’re harvesting your own food to grow and eat, that gets people hooked on gardening,” said Julie Weisenhorn from the University of Minnesota Extension.

If you want to give it a try, Natalie Hoidal of the U of M Extension said that it’s important to give yourself time to experiment and learn.

“There are plenty of options that you don’t need to start early, you can always start in May,” Hoidal said.

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Weisenhorn and Hoidal offer some practical tips on getting your garden going. A backyard is great, but a smaller box in your home can work as well.

What can you grow?

Weisenhorn suggests that any kind of lettuce or greens are a good place to start option. They begin with small seeds that you don’t have to dig deep into soil, and they grow quickly and can even be picked while growing indoors.

Other options include radishes, beets, carrots and herbs.

Seeds, soil and pots (or containers)

To get started, you need a supply of seeds, planting soil and containers to hold your seedlings and plants in.

But a lot of the equipment you need to start your garden can be sourced from around your house already.

“The really important things to start with are seeds and potting soil. You can be creative with containers with what’s around the house, like an egg carton or yogurt containers for a container to start,” Hoidal said. She added that you should add holes to the bottom of the container to let water flow through. Use an old baking sheet under your containers to catch any water that flows through.

The most important equipment to spend money on is potting soil. Dirt from your yard or an outside source could have insects or diseases that could kill the seed before it can grow.

For seeds, you can order through seed catalogs, but Weisenhorn added that another easy option is to collect seeds from the food you’re already eating.

“You can open up a bell pepper and take the seeds out and plant the seeds. If you want to grow tomatoes, you take the seeds out, wash off the slimey stuff around it, then dry them. That can be limiting, depending on vegetables you can buy right now, but you can try it,” Weisenhorn said. “Otherwise, feel free to order seeds.”

Seed catalogs can help provide information on what plants are in season right now, but some are limiting their orders due to high demand. A little extra research should provide options for seeds, but some hardware stores offer seed packets for various veggies and flowers as well. Local growing groups may also have seed libraries to help you start.

It might be a challenge to buy soil or other equipment while social distancing, but both Weisenhorn and Hoidal said a few local greenhouses and gardening suppliers offer curbside pick-up.

And even if you’re not comfortable with starting from seeds, plenty of greenhouses and nurseries offer transplant plants.

Where to start growing

Once you’ve planted your seeds in their containers with potting soil, keep the seeds in a room with a south-facing window. If your residence doesn’t have a south-facing window, you can supplement the sun with a grow light, or use a small florescent bulb lamp.

Hoidal added that another option is to have a heat mat to help keep the soil warm while the seeds start to germinate. You can also cover the seeds with clear plastic in a warm room to create a miniature greenhouse effect and help the seeds start.

You can also pick a crop that has a cooler growing season, like lettuce or radishes, because they tend to do better with less light.

Depending on the seeds, once they start to grow, they need about 15 hours of bright light to keep growing, Weisenhorn said.

Then if you have the space available, you can move your plants outside sometime after the last frost day in your area, which is different depending on where you live. Farther south in Minnesota, it could be as early as May 10. Farther north it could be closer to the last day of May.

Around that time, Weisenhorn suggests acclimating the seedlings your growing to the outdoor climate. Take them outdoors during the day in the sun, and bring them back indoors at night for about a week.

You’ll want to wait for the soil to be dry enough where it crumbles and breaks into small clumps in your hand before moving the plants to their outdoor home. Hoidal suggests testing your soil to understand what your soil may need in fertilizer or treatment.

Looking to learn more?

Both Weisenhorn and Hoidal write for the University of Minnesota Extention Yard and Garden blog, and the Extension also has a YouTube channel for the yard and garden needs.

You might also want to reach out to a local master gardener for your county for advice on how to get started. You can call the master gardener main phone line at 612-301-7590, or visit their website.

Are you growing something this spring? Here’s what you shared with us

Of course, I am! Tomatoes and peppers, beans and a few different herbs. Even back when I lived in an apartment, I grew at least one tomato in a bucket out on the balcony. Nothing you'd buy at the grocery store tastes like a fully ripe, fresh-picked tomato. Now I buy, trade or save seeds from heirlooms and other special varieties you can't buy from a store. ~Diane from Lauderdale, Minn.