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.
Because you eat microgreens when they are essentially infant plants, the turnaround time from seed to harvest is quicker than anything else — as short as two weeks, according to Pisegna. “The cool thing about microgreens is they span a pretty big category,” says Vallin Kostavick. According to her, you can use any kind of lettuce seeds you want — kale seeds, peas, and even broccoli seeds. “Usually with microgreens, you are eating the cotyledons,” says Pisegna, referring to the first leaves of the seed, which will look different from all the following sets of leaves. “They are what carries all the starch to feed the baby plant which is why they taste so good and why they’re packed with so many vitamins and minerals,” he says. To give your microgreens a good start, Vallin Kostavick suggests soaking them overnight and then sprinkling them evenly over your soil before covering them with a thin layer of dirt.
Instead of harvesting the first sprouted leaves the way you do with microgreens, you’ll let your greens grow into mature adult plants. Metrick is a fan of arugula because you can basically keep snipping away and it will grow back. This is also true of spinach and other lettuce varieties as long as you don’t snip the central crown of the plant. Vallin Kostavick and Pisegna also recommend growing different kinds of lettuce like mesclun mix, red leaf lettuce, or Bibb lettuce, because they taste sweeter when they are small and they grow lots of leaves quickly. Be sure to plant your seeds further apart to avoid crowding, and when harvesting, remember to leave the smaller center leaves behind so that they can continue growing.
Like lettuce, these greens are easy to grow and provide a lot of food for not much effort. Vallin Kostavick prefers the Lacinato or Toscano variety. “It can get really big in a good way, but it’s a little more streamlined than regular kale so it doesn’t go as wide,” she says. As with head lettuce, you always want to harvest the outer leaves of your kale or Swiss chard first.
When it comes to plants that produce fruit, Vallin Kostavick recommends starting with smaller, high-yielding varieties like cherry tomatoes instead of bigger, slower-growing Beefsteak tomatoes. They still need a lot of light, but you’ll get more to eat over a longer period of time. If possible, Pisenga suggests buying these plants as seedlings rather than starting from seeds. You can purchase seedlings or full-grown plants at your local nursery, farmer’s market, or even on Etsy, which has plenty of plants, seeds, and other gardening essentials. Seeds aren’t a bad idea; they just take a bit longer. These should take anywhere from 65 to 85 days from seed to harvest.
If you have lots of light, both Metrick and Vallin Kostavick suggest growing peppers. “Pepper plants love full exposure, and they could take a little bit of drought,” says Metrick.
Assuming (and hoping) your newfound interest in gardening outlasts the coronavirus that triggered it, planting perennials, which come back year after year, means the energy you invest now could put food on your plate for the next ten years. To that end, Metrick suggests planting a blueberry (or other berry) bush in a pot with at least a five-gallon capacity. As with tomato and pepper plants, you will see fruit sooner and avoid a lot of frustration if you buy a fully grown blueberry bush instead of attempting the more advanced task of growing blueberries from seeds.
How to Grow a Zombie Garden
You probably have a friend on Instagram who has started proudly sharing pics of the lettuce and the other vegetables they are magically regrowing from food scraps. The trend, which we have heard referred to as Zombie Gardening, is just like sprouting an avocado pit. All you need is water, a small clear shot glass or juice cup, some sun, and the leftover ends of your vegetables (maybe the ones you got from the farmer’s market or a subscription-box service like Imperfect Foods). Scallions and heads of lettuce are prime contenders for this, because they’ll give you the most edible regrowth in the shortest amount of time. But you can also use celery, beets, and carrots. For lettuce, save the butt and at least two inches of leaves above it. For carrots and beets, you’ll need to buy the kinds that come with greens, then save those tops with at least a little bit of the veg below. Suspend the scrap in a little cup of water using toothpicks, then place it in a sunny spot and wait. You should see new leaves within a week and be able to harvest them or put the whole thing in a pot or soil within two or three weeks. Metrick suggests using organic produce for this where possible.