As a slant of spring sun fell across their garden, Jim and Maggie Langford worked side by side, preparing the soil, poking at strawberry plants and tucking in the first tender shoots of parsley and onions.
Concern about how the coronavirus might squeeze the food chain motivated the father-daughter team to get a jump on the season. They’ve crafted ambitious plans for their plot this growing season and are keeping an eager eye on the calendar to be ready for dates deemed safe to sow seeds and seedlings they started indoors.
“We’re going to be more intentional with our space. Our goal is to grow as much food as we can,” said Maggie, 25. “We’ve always done it for fun but this year, it’s for production.”
A decade ago, Jim bought a small alley lot kitty-corner from his house in southeast Minneapolis. It was overgrown with buckthorn, but he discovered peonies struggling under the invasive vines, and that sparked a vision for a garden.
“The first year, we scratched the dirt and put in some squash seeds,” said Jim, 57. “That gave me the confidence to get going, and Maggie was on board from the get-go. Really, anyone can do this if they pay attention, study and learn from their mistakes.”
The Langfords have gone from dabblers to devotees, now cultivating a lively pocket that feeds them crisp summer salads and tomatoes off the vine. They eat out of the garden year-round by freezing, canning and dehydrating their vegetables; their berries, grapes and currants filled 100 jam jars last year.
As Minnesota’s stay-at-home order was issued, the Langfords began scheming to expand their footprint. They made a deal with a neighbor; she’s allowed them to construct two rectangular plots in her side yard, where they will trellis cucumbers, squash, beans and melons and give her a generous share of the bounty.
“She’s happy about having some bustle in her world,” Maggie said.
Motivated by circumstances
A bumper crop of newbie gardeners are making plans to get their hands dirty, joining veteran gardeners who are ramping up their efforts to grow food for their families. In this spring like no other, Minnesotans are channeling their existential fears into the dirt in their yards, community plots and even in pots on decks, balconies and patios.
Interest in food production typically takes root in tough times, from the Great Depression to the Victory Gardens of World War II to the economic uncertainty of the most recent recession, when research by the National Gardening Association indicated that 4 million additional households started growing fruit, vegetables and herbs for personal consumption (garden.org/special/pdf/2014-NGA-Garden-to-Table.pdf).
“This is a time of momentous change, and it makes sense that people are turning to gardening. They have time to learn new things, and families are looking for affordable activities to ease their stress,” said Mary Meehan, consumer strategist at Minneapolis-based Panoramix Global.
“When things feel out of control, people want to manage their feelings, and one way is to find something to control. Gardening is a more healthy option than hoarding toilet paper.”
That surging interest is leading to spotty shortages for both wannabe and experienced gardeners.
Even as interest jumps, a number of springtime plant sales planned by Minnesota garden clubs have been canceled due to virus-related restrictions. The annual Mother’s Day sale by the Friends School has also been cut; the popular event at the State Fair grandstand usually offers shoppers the chance to browse some 250,000 plants from 50 different growers.
Online options are also feeling the pinch. Susan Steger Welsh passes many a snowbound evening flipping through seed catalogs and contemplating new varieties to try in the small raised bed she works in her St. Paul side yard.
“But by the time I was ready to order, some seeds were out of stock. I should have paid attention earlier,” she said.
Using tweezers she brought from home, she picked through seed packets at her local garden center, where many of her tried-and-true favorites were already gone, leaving her with varieties she has no experience with.
“Maybe I’ll find something new and it will be great,” she said. “A lot of people don’t want to get produce from a grocery store when who-knows-who handled it. I’d rather snip out of my yard; no one sneezed on it but me.”
Garden centers, now deemed essential, are back in business after being shuttered by Gov. Tim Walz’s original stay-at-home order. At Mother Earth Gardens in northeast Minneapolis, customers aren’t letting any grass grow under their feet. They’re scrambling to buy supplies, with particular demand noted for grow lights, trays, heat mats and peat pots used to germinate seeds indoors.
“We’re answering lots of questions for people just getting started. We recommend using seed-starting soil,” said assistant manager Theresa Lindblad. “It’s sterile so seeds can germinate with no bacteria disrupting the process. And it’s light and airy, so a seedling can push through it; if the soil is too dense, it can’t.”
Once those seedlings stand a few inches high, gardeners can take a simple step to make the plants more vigorous, according to Dorothy Stainbrook, who farms on 23 acres near Forest Lake.
“You have to harden them off outdoors to get them acclimated to the wind and sun or they’ll get stunted or won’t make it,” she warned.
Stainbrook has coaxed hundreds of tomato and pepper plants from seed to seedling, babying them under grow lights. At this time of the season, she rolls a four-tiered cart loaded with plants out of the greenhouse for a daily dose of fresh air.
Stainbrook is schlepping hundreds of her hardened-off seedlings to her booth at the St. Paul Farmers Market, where she’s ready for lots of queries.
“All the farmers at any farmers market will be glad to guide you,” she said. “You can ask us anything, which varieties are easier, how much sun they need.” She shares her knowledge on her blog, farmtojar.com, YouTube channel, youtube.com/user/heathglenskitchen/featured, and the Grow Your Own Food Facebook group, facebook.com/groups/growyourownfoodgroup/.
“My goal is to help people become self-sufficient, even in a small way, whether it’s a project with their kids or growing herbs in a container on their porch,” she said. “It’s a good activity for all these people who are working remotely; when they take a break, they can water and weed.”
In north Minneapolis, Angelina McDowell is working with other volunteers to add raised beds and figure out how to expand the growing season at a community garden.
Four years ago, a community group leased three previously vacant lots from the city for $1 and established the Old Highland Peace Garden. It relies on a tiny budget, donations and sweat to raise organic collards, cabbage, okra, snap peas, berries and other summer staples.
“Neighbors can take what they want. People like to come pick tomatoes while they’re still green and fry them up,” said McDowell, who anticipates a more intense scramble for vegetables this summer.
“It’s a necessity. Our neighborhood doesn’t have the same access to affordable, high-quality fresh food as in other parts of the city,” she said. “The garden is a community-building thing.”
This year, many gardeners will take a grassroots approach, looking beyond their own tables as they go to work.
Assuming that Mother Nature cooperates, the Langfords expect plenty of product to pick or pinch and then share. They hope that by the time their produce ripens, social distancing will have eased and they will be able to stage summertime garden parties and plant swaps to hand off the fruits of their labor to neighbors and friends.
“A garden is a thing of beauty and I want other people to experience it,” said Jim. “We all need to get outside and interact with something that needs us. It gives serenity to a troubled world.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and broadcaster.