Gardening during a pandemic

Victory gardens south of Glebe Collegiate in the early 1940s
Raised beds in the community gardens at Lansdowne  Photo: Lynn Armstrong
Mutchmor students planting out zinnia seedlings

By Lynn Armstrong

In 2003, I designed the heritage garden in front of Mutchmor school. While researching to create this garden, I discovered a lot about the history of gardening in the Glebe, especially on the St. Andrews Glebe lands put into service in challenging times during the First World War. The land was used to grow food in vacant lot gardens and victory gardens on the school grounds just south of Glebe Collegiate.

Now that we face the new challenge of being homebound during this pandemic, gardening might come to our rescue once again, as a therapeutic way to be active and enjoy the arrival of spring safely in our own homes and yards. We can also entertain ourselves now in the early spring by starting seeds under lights – this always brings me hope and anticipation of the summer to come.

If not for the coronavirus and the resulting school closures, I would have started seeds indoors with Mutchmor students right after the March break. Though that is not happening this year, starting seeds is a fun and easy activity to add to your new home-school curriculum.

I normally start tomato plants and basil for students to take home and grow in containers. Cherry, pear and grape varieties of tomatoes are particularly good for containers. I often plant one tomato in a large pot surrounded by basil as they are companion plants. Other easy seeds to start with children are flowers like zinnia, cosmos and marigolds which make wonderful drought-tolerant additions to your gardens.

Hardware stores, which luckily are still open, carry seeds, sterile starting soil, trays and florescent lights for growing seeds indoors. You don’t need fancy light bulbs – I use one cool white and one warm white bulb in each light. Keep them within a few inches of the plants. I also recommend using a timer to give the seedlings about 14 hours a day under the lights so they don’t get spindly.

The initial cost of the lights may seem expensive, but I have had mine for 30 years. Start small with one or two lights. I bought an inexpensive stacking plastic shelving unit and use chains and S hooks to hang my lights so I can adjust them as the plants grow. Fancy, expensive plant stands are not required. You can also reuse plastic lettuce containers as a little greenhouse until the seeds germinate.

Ritchie Feed and Seed is still open with reduced hours and sells the seed-starting mix, trays and various seeds. Seeds are also available from online catalogues like Veseys, which has tips on seed starting. I also recommend local seed growers like Greta’s Organic Gardens where you can order seeds online and read their catalogues for plant descriptions.

Others, like Richters Herbs and Terra Edibles, specialize in heritage varieties, and Urban Harvest is good for organic seeds. There are also lots of online resources for starting seeds, and local groups like the Ottawa Network for Education, Just Foods and Growing up Organic are good sources for information about gardening with children.

I start seeds for things like peppers, kale, basil, tomatoes, eggplant, cabbage and okra indoors in late March and early April for both my own garden and for the raised-bed demonstration gardens next to the Horticulture Building at Lansdowne where I do the design and planting. By starting seeds, I can grow new or specific varieties that might not be available in nurseries and plant them in the demonstration gardens to introduce them to both beginner and experienced gardeners.

The only downside of starting my own plants is that I often grow too many. If that happens and you would like to build a raised bed for your surplus, I recommend the Brewer Park Community Garden website which has construction plans and advice. For suggestions on intensive planting for raised beds, google “square foot gardening” for suggestions on the variety of plants and quantities. Planning what to grow and garden planting layout would be a fun project with the kids and could incorporate a bit of math and drawing.

Gardening is good exercise and a good outdoor activity for families, things we all crave right now. And growing our own food and having some control of our food supply may be reassuring in this year of uncertainty.

We will all be experts at walking by the end of this pandemic so swing by the gardens at Lansdowne this summer and I’ll give you a tour.

 Lynn Armstrong is a Glebe gardener who designed the Lansdowne community gardens and has expertise in native and heritage gardening.

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