Whenever there’s a crisis — the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, when NYC went bankrupt in the 1970s — people have historically become much more interested in growing their own food, says Melissa Metrick, professor of urban agriculture at NYU’s school of Nutrition and Food Studies. And it’s no different right now. With the coronavirus changing how we shop for food and prime planting season underway, we’ve noticed quite a few people on social media starting modern victory gardens. While growing enough food to feed your family may not be possible in a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, there are many things you can grow that will shorten your grocery list — and just as important, bring you joy. We asked Metrick and two other experienced gardeners to walk us through the quickest and easiest way to create your very own COVID-19 victory garden.
The biggest thing to consider is sunlight. As a general rule, the less sun you have the slower your plants will grow. So if you don’t have enough — at least six hours of direct sunlight a day for most edible plants — you’ll need grow lights, which aren’t that much more expensive than regular light bulbs, and just as easy to use. Otherwise, all it takes is a few pots, some soil, and a place to plant. (Just not the fire escape, Metrick warns. Planting there is illegal in NYC.) Many fruits and vegetables can be grown from seeds, but since we’re already a little ways into the growing season, for larger plants such as tomatoes, unless you’re willing to wait until late summer for your first fruit, you’ll want to order a seedling from your local nursery. And if you’re just looking to have some fun while you wait for your garden to grow, you can get started by regrowing food scraps: Put the root end of a scallion (like David Chang did on Instagram) or the butt of a head of lettuce in water, and it will start to sprout and regrow in about a week.
Here’s what our experts recommend to get you started.
Organic gardener Allison Vallin Kostavick says you can plant vegetables and herbs in almost any container, from an old dresser drawer to a plastic storage container, as long as it is at least six-inches deep and has proper drainage.
If you are planting your garden inside, you’ll want to arrange your pots around a window, preferably east- or west-facing, or under your grow light. Pots that are rectangular and span the width of your windows will make the most of your available sunlight. Metrick likes filling window-box planters like this with arugula or spinach or other loose-leaf lettuces.
If you have the space indoors or access to some outdoor space like a balcony or a roof, raised-bed planters like this one are ideal. The height makes gardening easier on your back and positions plants closer to your windows without any additional furniture. The Urban Bloomer Bed is self-watering (a helpful feature for those days that you forget), with a reservoir in the bottom that plants can draw from when needed. The drainage tap makes it easy to get rid of excess water without making a mess.
For starting seedlings or growing microgreens, which need only an inch or two of soil until they’re transferred into larger containers, these shallow growing trays are convenient and will keep you from wasting potting soil.
Most plants don’t care what kind of watering can you use. But that’s not the case with seedlings, says Vallin-Kostavick. For those she recommends a watering can with a sprinkler attachment to avoid damaging the fragile plants by pummeling them with water. For best results, she says soil should remain moist to the touch but not drenched, since overwatering can cause the fragile roots to rot. This can from Haws gives you the option of a regular spout or a sprinkler attachment.
Anything in your soil goes into your plants, which in turn goes into you. That’s why Metrick, Vallin Kostavick, and George Pisegna, deputy director and chief of horticulture at the Horticulture Society of New York, all suggest avoiding soil with chemical fertilizers and using a high-quality organic potting soil instead.
If you don’t have your own compost, Metrick and Vallin Kostavick suggest buying a bag to mix into your soil. According to Metrick, compost like this one is far superior to liquid fertilizer. “The way I explain it to my students is when you give a plant fertilizer, that’s like a vitamin,” she says. “But when you give them compost that’s like giving them a whole food.”
Grow lights are nearly as effective as actual sun and they don’t have to cost a lot, Vallin Kostavick says. “I’ve been growing my seedlings with a shop light for two decades. It’s awesome and low cost,” she says. To approximate the required six to eight hours of direct sunlight, Vallin Kostavick suggests doubling the amount of artificial light you give your plants, especially if you are starting from seed. This floodlight is designed with plants in mind and the fixture can be clamped to the side of a planter, a table, or the side of a shelf — all for less than $20 bucks.
For something that does an even better job of approximating actual sunshine, you can get this dual-head LED grow light, which Adam Dooling, curator of outdoor gardens and herbaceous collections at the New York Botanical Garden, recommended when we wrote about indoor herb growing. It’s a little more expensive than the shop light, but it delivers a fuller spectrum of light that is beneficial to plants.
The best vegetables (and a few fruits) to grow (mostly) indoors
With the right amount of light, you can grow almost anything at home, from kale and cucumbers to a pineapple plant. If this is your first real experience gardening, all of our experts agree that you will have the most success with plants with edible leaves. Since leaves are the first thing a plant needs to perform photosynthesis, Pisegna explains, growing leafy vegetables will mean you have something to eat sooner than if you grow plants with edible roots, fruit, or stems.