The coronavirus pandemic has curtailed all sorts of activities this spring but for many homeowners there is one that can be therapeutic, safe and practical right in their backyards– gardening.

As a lifelong gardener, I’ll be the first to admit that raising vegetables in a typical backyard setting, whether it be in raised beds or so-called ‘field” type layouts, is a loser economically. When one considers the cost of fencing (there are all sorts of beady-eyed critters lurking around ready to wipe out your crops), water, fertilizer and disease-fighting concoctions, those tomatoes of August are an expensive crop. But the taste is priceless.

Backyard gardening, even involving inedible crops, has therapeutic value, especially this year when we all can use some uplifting mental exercise, not to mention the physical type.

For the full experience, it is not too late to start vegetable crops from seed and while there are countless on-line places to order seeds, there are some open retailers that still offer displays of packets. 

Experienced gardeners may employ sophisticated seed-starting setups using plastic six-pack trays, grow lights (the new LED lights now available are far superior than the old types because they are cheaper to run and promote faster growth, although the initial cost is high) heating mats to push germination and pro-type growing media.

But neophytes to seed starting can go the el cheapo route using egg containers, paper cups, cut-down milk containers etc. and use warm spots around the house such as on the top of refrigerators, radiators or sunny windowsills to push germination. Cover the seeds with plastic wrap until they emerge. Remove the plastic wrap and once the true leaves emerge (the second set) appear, keep them moist. 

Old-time gardeners, especially my Italian neighbors when I was growing up in Providence, never planted their vegetable gardens until Memorial Day. That still makes sense. The proximity of the ocean and Narragansett Bay keeps our springs on the cool side and until the soil warms up, any plants set out (especially tomatoes) will remain comatose until the soil warms. Soil temperature is a far more important factor than air temperatures when it comes to plants.

Speaking of neighbors, if you are fortunate enough to have some who are experienced gardeners, don’t be shy about tapping their knowledge–from at least six feet way. I have a Portuguese neighbor who is a born green thumb (he has an apple tree that he has grafted with scions of five different varieties using electrical tape) and Manny not only has a garden worthy of a seed catalog cover, he also makes great homemade wines. Everyone should be lucky enough to have a Manny for a neighbor.

Online, all sorts of gardening help is available. But of course, the old saw remains in effect– that the quality you reap from a garden is directly proportional to the amount of effort you put into it. At this writing the end of the pandemic is unknown, but you do not need a mask to work in your backyard and any outside activity certainly beats viewing the meager offerings on TV these days.

Experts have no idea when everyday life will return to normal, but gardening is one surefire way to help one maintain some sort of sanity. There is nothing wrong with starting another growing season in late August around here. Narragansett Bay, while it affects our springs adversely (large bodies of water take time to heat up or cool down), brings us some pretty good weather in the fall and gardeners can keep going by starting a second season of crops. Fans of Brussel sprouts for example love to leave that crop in the garden past a couple of frosts. The sprouts that freeze on the stalks are easy to pluck off and somehow the freezing results in a sweeter taste. Likewise, fall plantings of kale, certain root crops and some greens can be rewarding in the fall.

The pandemic is an economic disaster, for certain, and home gardening represents no economic boom either. But we are learning now, more than ever before, that there are values we can cultivate right in our backyards—one of many lessons we are bound to learn from these disastrous times.

Rudi Hempe

Rudi Hempe of Narragansett is a retired editor of weekly newspapers in Rhode Island, a former reporter and bureau manager at the Providence Journal and a lifelong gardener.