Backyard gardens gain popularity during pandemic

Spring 2020 was filled with unknowns. Michiganders watched as everyday staples, such as toilet paper, vanished. Quantity limits were placed on meat purchases, and produce and some food items became scarce. “Stay Home, Stay Safe” was a new and uneasy mantra for us.

Laid off and quarantined at home, many took advantage of the time by accomplishing home and yard projects that had been put off. Some of those projects took the form of a first attempt at gardening. Whether it was fear caused by disruptions in the food supply chain, a need to explore something new, or a pandemic-induced need to nurture, new gardens are springing up all along the Lakeshore.
Alyssa Cheadle harvests tomatoes from her garden at her home in the Holland Historic District.
According to Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension Senior Horticulture Educator, the university’s service experienced an exceptionally large number of calls and requests for gardening information this spring. 

“In addition to MSU Extension’s gardening website, where people can find resources for learning to garden, there is an Ask the Expert option that is manned around the clock to answer questions, including a place where people can upload a photo,” Finneran said. 

The site contains how-to videos, pollinator information, soils, and compost guidance, and provides answers to the basic questions asked by novice gardeners.

To supplement website resources, Finneran and her team hosted online webinars on topics like pruning and pest control during the winter and early spring. One of the more popular series was Cabin Fever Conversations, conducted virtually by experts from Michigan and surrounding states.

Food source and mental diversion

Hope College Professors Michelle Bombe and Alyssa Cheadle both made first attempts at gardening this spring. While students learned and instructors taught from home, the professors were drawn to gardening both as a food source and a mental diversion.

Cheadle and her husband built three raised beds, placing them in varying degrees of shade and sunshine within their yard.

“We spent a lot of time planning and learning early on, and that is where we found our mental relief and diversion,” she says. They set a budget, purchased supplies, and built the raised beds. They bought soil, compost, and seedlings through Eighth Day Farm, which also delivered a beginner’s gardening kit to their home.

Bombe’s work with Hope College’s Theatre Department and the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival requires extensive travel.

“All that came to a grinding halt in March, and I decided to get back to nature and reclaim my backyard,” she says. “I also really knew I needed something to nurture and to help mark time. Digging in the dirt has always soothed my soul. It is our basic nature to have our hands in the soil and grow food to nourish us and flowers to bring us beauty.”

Turning her back room into a greenhouse, Bombe looked forward to checking on the new sprouts each morning.
Neighborly assistance

Chipmunk and squirrel raids against their hard work and delicate plants were surprising problems for Cheadle. Back-fence neighbors Bob and Georgia Arends shared decades of gardening experience with the beginners, showing them how to protect a garden from the urban marauders. Cheadle also learned about timing of water application and plant spacing from her neighbors, as well as through trial and error.

Alyssa Cheadle with a bowl of her homegrown tomatoes.The most satisfying reward Cheadle experienced was presenting the Arendses with the first ripe tomato of the season.

“They always try to have a fresh tomato from their garden for Bob’s birthday in the middle of July,” she says. “This year, it didn’t happen. But I had one, a large, ripe heirloom tomato. And it felt very good to give them the first one from my garden.”

Bombe’s 20-by-20-foot garden has been a source of comfort through a difficult time of isolation.

“It is the first thing I tend in the morning and the last thing at night,” she says. “Having a garden helped with my need to nurture. I also focused on our backyard to create a haven for my husband and me to enjoy. It all feels very much like getting back to basics and tending to our little part of the earth.”

She hopes to extend the flowers and landscaping to the front yard in the future so others also can enjoy the beautiful plants and landscaping.

Tips for the beginner

Finneran says a garden doesn’t have to be large or have huge variety to augment family meals. Families that are home more right now may have time to tend a larger vegetable patch that provides produce for the table and some to preserve for the winter. But in more normal years, when both parents may be working, simple items like fresh herbs can be used for caprese salads or to dress up ordinary meals.

Alyssa Cheadle waters her garden at her home in the Holland Historic District.For the beginning gardener, Finneran suggests starting small with easy crops, such as beans, radishes, cucumbers, and peppers. Easy, prolific crops help set up the novice for success early on and feed a desire to continue.

“Plan to be successful by studying and learning about the crops you want to raise,” she says. “The best gardens start in the classroom.”

When the thermometer reads 90 degrees and humidity is unbearable, the romance for growing food fades quickly, and gardens tend to be left to survive alone or die. Finneran’s start-small advice helps the novice get through the more unpleasant aspect of summer gardening.

When researching and looking for unbiased growing advice and knowledge, Finneran recommends sticking to websites with research-based, local, scientific information. These websites will generally end with .edu. “These sites are not trying to sell a product to use in your garden,” she says.

Read more agriculture stories:

Farmers markets reporting higher attendance as they open within safe shopping guidelines

Pandemic’s effect on meat processing, supply steers customers to locally-sourced food

Pandemic spurs Visser Farms to find creative ways to offset losses, serve community

Read more articles by Bev Berens.