Planting a garden is an excellent project to fill the hours of inactivity some of us are experiencing now — and, in times of national crisis like this, growing food can be a personal morale booster while offering support to your family and your community.
The Victory Gardens planted during World War II were all of those as well as an act of patriotism. They were part of a national campaign to address war time food shortages. Encouraged by strong national leadership and organization, the home gardens were able to produce more than forty percent of the food needed at that time.
While complying with orders to stay at home, we can revive Victory Gardens and consider growing some edibles. Gardening not only offers outdoor activity but also provides us with food that we won’t have to leave home to buy. Since store shelves are often empty these days, growing fresh food at home can help circumvent the issue caused by hoarders. In addition, gardening can offer fresh air, sunshine, exercise and lots of learning opportunities for our out-of-school kids.
I encourage you to take this opportunity to try your hand at veggie gardening. Though some veggies may take a few months to ripen, a few can give you edible food in a few weeks. Without knowing how long we are going to be homebound and to prepare for possible shortages in the future, getting a garden going now is definitely a good idea.
For those new to gardening, a few tips can get you started. For experienced gardeners, now is a good time to consider expanding your growing area so you can share your produce with neighbors and friends who don’t have the space or ability to grow food.
First you need to select a suitable site for your plants. Choose a site where you have easy access. Plants that you can visit regularly will have a better chance of survival.
Whether you are going to put a few pots on your lanai, replace some of your lawn with crops or expand a backyard garden, several considerations are important. Most vegetables require sunlight to thrive. Though some can grow well with as little as four to six hours of sun exposure, it’s best to choose a site that is not in shade more than a few hours a day.
For those in windy areas or close to the ocean, plan for some kind of protection from strong winds or salt spray. Also, be sure your soil drains well and that your pots have good drainage, since plants prefer not to sit in water. If you are putting plants on a lanai, you’ll want to check on water runoff there as well.
Select plants that you like to eat. Though radishes are really easy and fast to grow, don’t plant them if no one in your family will enjoy eating them.
If you are doing more cooking at home, grow herbs to add interesting flavors to your food or use for tea. Consider fast growing ones like cilantro, chives, lemongrass, chervil, basil, oregano and mint. If you love salads, you can find lots of interesting greens that can quickly become a meal. Also consider growing hearty greens that can be eaten either fresh or cooked.
Don’t forget to put in a few edible flowers. Lavender, calendula, nasturtiums and even roses can add beauty to both your garden and the food you serve. Know that beans, root crops, corn, squash and fruits like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers can take three months or more to produce mature fruit but that time will go fast if you start now.
If you want food from seed quickly, consider sprouting seeds. Lots of sprouting techniques and supplies are offered online and you can find seeds for sprouting at Johnny’s and Botanical Interests as well as on Amazon. For food in a hurry, consider radishes, green onions, plus lots of different greens including kale, arugula, lettuce and Asian varieties. Most of these greens can be eaten when very young so plant a lot and eat some early and others later either fresh or cooked.
With time at home to peruse seed company catalogs online, you can select some really interesting plants to grow and get the seeds delivered to your door pretty quickly. For seeds grown here in Hawaii check out the offerings at Hawaii Seed Growers Network at hawaiiseedgrowersnetwork.com. They are constantly expanding to offer more local seeds for local needs. All their seeds are open pollinated, sustainably grown and non-GMO.
Seed companies like Baker Creek, Johnny’s and Peaceful Valley offer lots of choices. Baker Creek’s website (rareseeds.com) has growing tips for most of their seeds. Their tips are for temperate climates but they offer helpful advice for new gardeners. They sell heirloom seeds that are organically grown and non-GMO and they offer free shipping.
Johnny’s has been a go-to seed company for many gardeners and farmers for years. They have a large variety of seeds including some hybrids. If you want to save seeds, remember that seeds saved from hybrid (F1) varieties will not grow true to the adult. Seed savers should choose non-hybrid seeds.
Peaceful Valley (www.groworganic.com) offers lots of organically grown seeds as well as downloadable catalogs that highlight fertility and pest control products. You can get lots of ideas from them. Seeds are usually shipped here free but their other products, especially large or heavy items can be expensive to ship to Hawaii.
It’s probably best to start most seeds in small pots, seeding trays, or even paper cups. Root crops can be planted directly in the ground and to-be-potted crops can be planted directly in their pots. Once your seedlings start to produce adult leaves and look like they are ready for the great outdoors, fertilize lightly and plant them out.
Putting cheap beer in tuna cans before you plant will let you know if you have slugs at your site. It will also offer them a free, fatal drink. A bit of snail bait sprinkled around a few days before planting could also save your young plants from being consumed by hungry mollusks. This will keep potential rat lungworm disease carriers out of your garden as well. If you want to be super vigilant against rat lungworm, thoroughly inspect and triple wash any produce you might not be cooking or peeling before you eat it.
As you probably know, Kona soil is very rocky. Augmenting any native soil you have by mixing it with compost, grass clippings or chopped up leaves would be an improvement. If you don’t have any of these organic amendments on site, you might want to purchase some potting mix and/or a balanced N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) fertilizer. Look for ones that also contain other important plant nutrients like calcium, magnesium and sulfur. You can order these products online or on a quick trip to a local gardening supply store that might be open. Organic mixes by Black Gold are always a good choice.
OK — while seed shopping, you got wowed by all the beautiful pictures and promises of delicious food grown from seed. Know that you can also cut some corners in the meantime and grow food crops using vegetative propagation techniques.
Some plant parts can be saved from the trash or the garbage disposal to grow new plants. If you plant the root ends of onions, leeks or green onions in a sunny spot they’ll usually sprout new growth. Once green onions are growing, you can cut the tops as you need them causing the plant to put out new shoots for later use.
Some leaves from lettuces and other greens will grow roots in water, especially if root cells remain intact. Put the bottom of the leaves in a little water and mist them lightly. If they root before they rot, put them in soil and you’ll have a new plant
The bottom of a celery plant will grow even after you have removed most of the stalks. Again, put it in a little water or a pot containing a rooting medium like a mix of vermiculite and perlite. Keep the base moist and once it starts to put out shoots, put it in soil in a sunny spot and grow your own celery.
Some roots crops are also easy to grow from scraps. Potatoes, sweet potatoes and ginger propagate easily. If you have them around for a while, they may sprout on their own and you can cut off the sprouting portion(s) to plant. Otherwise, cut a section of the root that contains at least two ‘eyes’. Plant it in a few inches of moist soil with the eyes up. Keep soil moist (not wet) and you should see sprouts from your new plant in a few weeks.
However you decide to proceed, the time is right to get some edibles growing. You’ll provide food for your table, some good outdoor exercise as well as a fun learning activity for children. You’ll also be helping yourself and your community by staying home and away from places where you might get sick or make others ill. A garden can provide a peaceful place to find solace in these troubled times, so start planting today. Happy gardening.
Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living part time in Kailua-Kona.