If you’re feeling isolated or have too much time to spare because COVID-19 is keeping you close to home, perhaps planting a garden, large or small, is a way to keep your mind occupied through the pandemic.
The Courier checked in with Seann Dory and Suzy Keown for tips on how to manage a garden, particularly for those who’ve never planted one before. They’re farming at Southlands in Tsawwassen, described as one of North America’s largest “agrihoods” — 530 acres are being developed into a community modeled on agrarian villages and rural farmsteads — and have a farm called Salt and Harrow.
Dory was also co-founder of Sole Food Street Farms in Vancouver, which transforms vacant lots into gardens, while Keown grew up on a farm and was previously operations manager at Dogwood Brewing.
Q: If a person was new to gardening, how big should they go in terms of a plot?
Dory: It’s all time dependent, really. You can go as small as a few square feet and as big as you have space for. But for every foot that you do have, you have to have time to manage it. We always start people with a four-by-four foot box and then they go from there.
Q: How much money should someone invest in a basic garden? Is it costly?
Dory: For a small garden, it’s not costly at all. Just some seeds and you want to make sure you’re really focused on the compost that you’re putting down, and you want to be paying attention to the ground you’re using. If it’s in a box, it’s easy. You’re just using compost, which is great. If you’re on a piece of ground that’s never had anything on it, you might want to test it or see if anything is growing. You might want to top dress it… or anything to get it to the point where it can grow something.
Q: What are the easiest fruits or vegetables to grow?
Dory: It depends on what you want. Quick is radish or lettuce.
Keown: You can re-seed those many times throughout the season to make sure you have a supply of them.
Dory: Yes, if you’re looking to have a constant supply of salad, those are things that are seeded constantly and you can get the reward really quick and get that feedback right away. They sprout within a couple of days and they’re ready to eat within three to four weeks’ time.
Keown: It’s fun to go with exotic stuff but we’re in a specific [gardening] zone.
Dory: Anybody in the Lower Mainland is in zone seven. You can grow most things here.
Keown : You want to look for things that grow easily or well in zone seven.
Q: What would you say are the most difficult fruits or vegetables to grow, which people who are just starting out should avoid?
Keown: Brussels sprouts. They’re delicious but delicious to a lot of pests as well.
Dory: The longer something has to stay in the ground, sometimes the harder it can be to maintain. If you don’t have the time to be managing that regularly, there’s more chances for it to go wrong. That said, things like tomatoes which are in the ground for a very long time, are quite resilient. If you’re looking for continuous bounty, things that have multiple harvests are great like kale or chard or tomatoes or peppers. Those things will keep giving for a long time.
Keown: And there are things to grow with them that keep pests away. If you want to keep them in an organic fashion, marigolds keep aphids away, so, if you’re growing kale, or something like that, you’d want to plant just a couple of patches.
Q: Are different places in the Lower Mainland better for growing different types of things. Would Vancouver be different from Richmond, for example?
Dory: The further inland you go, it’s not quite as wet as right on the coast so sometimes the biggest worry you have, especially in the spring, is just drowning when the plants get too wet.
Keown: The heat of the city helps.
Dory: Yes. The heat of the city can increase the zone, or even just a sheet of cloth or plastic over something. For every type of cover you put over something, you’re also increasing your zone. It’s basically like going south.
Q: What are some of your top tips for gardening?
Dory: The two most important things are paying attention to the soil and paying attention to the water. Those are absolute rules of thumb. It’s all about watching and observing. The faster you can pick up on whether or not there’s a pest or something going on that you don’t understand, the better.
Keown: Don’t get over zealous about what you’re planting. One plant goes a long way for a family. You don’t need six tomato plants or you’ll never want to eat a tomato again.
Dory: I would also say keep it simple at the beginning and then go from there. Don’t try to grow everything in the seed catalogue.
Q: If you had to pick three things to grow, what would they be?
Dory: As I was saying before, if you’re wanting a constant supply of fresh things, always plant those things that either come again or are multiple pickings — your tomatoes, your kale, your chard. Even lettuce that can be harvested multiple times and grow back. Those are things I would focus on. The return of those plants is much higher.
Keown: And peppers and cucumbers because they’re delicious and pickling is fun, too.
Q: How much time would a person have to devote to maintaining a garden patch?
Dory: Not very much. It just has to be consistent. It’s not really about a whole bunch of time, it’s about making sure you’re checking in with it every day.
Q: What are the biggest mistakes people make?
Dory: The biggest one is water — over or under. You don’t want it so the soil is sopping wet. You also want it to be able to hold together but crumble.
Keown: The other thing is not giving the plants enough of what they require — people trying to fit a lot into a little space. There are guidelines for it. West Coast Seeds has good guidelines for plant spacing and there’s a reason for it. You’ll get a better yield. You don’t have to cram everything in.
Q: Are there other resources you can suggest for people seeking advice?
Dory: The age of Google is amazing. Anything you want to know is there. Locally, like we said, West Coast Seeds is a great place. Figaro’s Garden Centre on Victoria Drive is also a great local garden centre people can go to.
Keown. And UBC Farm.
Q: What would you say to people who might be intimidated by the prospect of gardening?
Dory: When I started, I had no experience and I killed basil on my balcony on the first try before I started farming. Now we farm 20 acres of vegetables. If I can learn how to do it, anyone can.
Keown: Things will die but plants are shockingly resilient and forgiving.
Q: I think a lot of people are considering planting a garden as a result of COVID-19 and the fact they have more time at home. Are you hearing that and do you think gardening also has a therapeutic value?
Dory: I absolutely believe we’re not meant for isolation as a species. I think doing anything physical right now, especially getting your hands dirty or just getting out and getting the sun on your face, is a really good idea.