LARRY SANCHEZ: Hey. Hope you guys are doing well. This is Larry Sanchez (ph) calling from Phoenix, Ariz. And one of my life hacks that I've been doing during this whole pandemic is trying to take some time in between work and maybe do some box breathing. It is going to be a five-second deep breath in. You're going to hold that for five seconds, and then you're going to release all your air for that five seconds. And then you're going to take another five seconds to refrain and then do it over again - just get that mental clarity, just help me refocus work and just get back into what I got to do. Have fun with it, and enjoy the rest of your day.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVEL DIGGING)
AARTI SHAHANI, HOST:
That's the sound of my nephew and roommate, Akshay, with a shovel.
AKSHAY: I'm in my backyard, and I'm digging holes to plant trees. I'm digging five-gallon holes, each six feet apart.
SHAHANI: And why are you doing this?
AKSHAY: Because my auntie told me to.
I'm Aarti Auntie, also known as Aarti Shahani, NPR contributor. My nephew is technically correct, though the other reason he's digging - we are testing drainage. If water drains from the ground too quickly, like it does at a sandy beach, anything we plant could die from dehydration. And if water takes too long, plants drown.
AKSHAY: Do you want it wider?
SHAHANI: Yeah, I think it could go a little wider.
My yard used to be a junkyard - a tragic mix of rubble, tires, pipes, chew toys, glass shards. It felt hopeless, but then COVID-19 changed my perspective. I was standing on a long line to get into the grocery store and wondered, why have I let all this dirt and sunlight and water go to waste? While it's impossible for me or you to grow everything we eat, it's not a bad time to get started on something. And gardening is great for your health, too, according to Dr. Rupa Marya.
RUPA MARYA: Planting a garden right now, it's a way to connect to something immediate here and now and watch it grow. It's got a lot of great health benefits. People are outside. They're getting sun on their skin, generating vitamin D.
SHAHANI: Today on NPR's LIFE KIT, building a COVID victory garden - rules of thumb to become a green thumb. I had to.
Tip No. 1 - create a vision. Before you turn into Johnny Appleseed, think about the space you're cultivating. Is it a yard, a rooftop, a windowsill, a fire escape? How much sunlight does it get? Take a look at models like yours. Don't Google Hawaii dream garden if you're in Minnesota. Also, talk to the neighbors about what grows well in your hardiness zone. We'll explain what that means in a moment.
Dr. Marya is my neighbor in Oakland, Calif. She's an internal medicine specialist at UCSF in San Francisco. At work, she's trying to get personal protective equipment to hospital staff. At home, she's gardening. She got her start dating a farmer.
MARYA: I fell in love with him when he - like, the moment he told me on our first date how Brussels sprouts grew.
SHAHANI: Marya's in her yard sitting beside Benjamin Fahrer, who's now her husband. We're safely distant, chatting on Zoom. Brussels sprouts are delicate, responsive to temperature. A cold snap will sweeten the sugars.
MARYA: And when he told me that I was - I fell so madly in love with him because...
BENJAMIN FAHRER: Great pickup line.
SHAHANI: Their backyard is the mother of all vision boards. They've got avocados, tomatoes, potatoes, lemons, oranges, figs, apples, chives, garlic, berries, and a lot of greens - mesclun, arugula, lettuce - basically everything you find in the produce aisle and then some. What you can grow depends on what hardiness zone you're in, meaning...
FAHRER: The chill, the - how cold it gets in your area. So the colder it gets, the hardier the zone. I think 1 is, like, Arctic.
SHAHANI: And 13 is, like, near the equator. It's not a perfect guide. If you're in the Northeast, it won't help you factor in how frost affects your veggies. But it's a great general guide. The USDA has a map of these zones. You can just plug in your ZIP code. We'll link to it in our episode page. My zone is 10. I can, in theory, grow everything my neighbors are growing, though I doubt I could actually pull that off. Marya says start small.
MARYA: You know, people can make a Chia Pet. It's - you know, pour some water on a head, and make it grow. You can grow arugula in your house and have delicious, rich, yummy, fresh arugula, and you will feel so good about yourself.
SHAHANI: That, by the way, can grow on a windowsill, too.
MARYA: Be courageous. Try it. If it doesn't work, try it at least three times. And if that doesn't work, marry a farmer.
SHAHANI: Before you go looking for your own farmer, let's talk to this one.
FAHRER: Yeah, well, there's the perennials and the annuals.
SHAHANI: Tip No. 2 - make sure you're working with healthy soil. Ben Fahrer is a professional landscaper, and what he's learned over the years is this.
FAHRER: Once you create the conditions conducive for life to grow, like, it grows. Like, they don't need us to grow. We just need to set up the stage.
SHAHANI: Set the stage with soil. Healthy soil is full of microorganisms, fungus, worms. Plant roots are able to penetrate because it's the right texture and structure. First, texture - soil texture depends on how much clay, sand and silt is in the ground.
FAHRER: Any soil is a combination of those three things. And the most ideal soil is the one that is right in the middle of those three, which is a sandy clay loam.
SHAHANI: This is true on average, though what exactly a plant wants can vary. Carrots and beets want more sandy soil so their roots can penetrate easier. Tomatoes want more clay for water retention. Now onto structure, how the particles are grouped together. Are they porous or cemented into an impenetrable layer? Soil with the exact same texture can have totally different structure. The ideal structure is granular or crumbly. You can get that structure by buying soil in bags at the hardware store. You can compost at home. We have a great LIFE KIT episode on that. You can also churn your soil using a rake or tiller, but you don't want to churn at the wrong time, like right after a heavy rainfall.
FAHRER: If the soil is too wet, it'll - when you churn it, it clumps. And then that locks - and then it when it dries out, it remains in these, like, basically balls of clay.
SHAHANI: That clumping can set your garden back for years.
FAHRER: And therefore, it doesn't allow for air to penetrate in, and it will be harder for the roots to penetrate that soil.
SHAHANI: There is also pH level, how acidic the soil is. The ideal soil is between 6 and 7 1/2 pH. If your plant starts to brown, you might need to add a soil conditioner to amend the acidity. Your local Master Gardener Program can point you to labs if you want to put your soil in a Ziploc bag and send it off for highly accurate testing. A big issue many people have is lead. It gets into the soil lots of ways - paint chipping from houses, old pipes, other debris. Fahrer says do not stress. You can still grow fruits and vegetables.
FAHRER: There are some things in the soil that can be transferred in the plant itself. So then when you eat that plant, it's in the cellular structure of the plant.
FAHRER: And lead isn't one of them. It only becomes poisonous as a physical property.
SHAHANI: I see.
FAHRER: So if you have lead in your soil and that soil dries out and starts blowing and you then eat that soil, that's where you're getting the lead. You're eating the soil part of it.
SHAHANI: For the most part, plants do not absorb lead into their tissues, but it gets on their skin. This is one reason it's important to wash all your veggies, even organic veggies from a farmer's market. You want to make sure there's no trace of soil residue.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVEL DIGGING)
SHAHANI: On to tip three - plant seeds, or if that's too hard, get transplants. I want herbs and vegetables. Chives, parsley, and cilantro are not fussy, so I'll plant them as seeds. But basil and tomato - those need more attention, so I'm going another route. Fahrer says in general, a seed is like an infant. It needs tons of care, and not everyone knows how to get it to survive. Starter plants, or transplants, are much easier. Those are the plants you'll see growing in small pots, maybe a few inches high.
FAHRER: They still need your love. They still need your care and stuff, but, you know, they're not going to fall down and kill themselves.
SHAHANI: OK, that's great.
SHAHANI: One other downside to seeds - they're less predictable. It's hard to know how many of them will actually sprout. If too many end up sprouting, they'll overcrowd, compete with each other to survive. So you may need to thin them out, meaning throw away. Fahrer has a corner of his urban farm dedicated to growing amaranth, mustard and edible chrysanthemum starts.
FAHRER: These are all, like, little starts here.
SHAHANI: Oh, my God.
FAHRER: That - you know, this is, like, lettuce starts...
SHAHANI: You've got hundreds of them.
FAHRER: ...That we transplanted. Thousands, you know?
SHAHANI: Thousands - he gives them away to new gardeners like me. You can also purchase them at your local nursery. Some hardware and grocery chains carry them, too. Once we have these seeds and transplants, where do we plant them?
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVEL DIGGING)
SHAHANI: Tip No. 4 - make containers or raised beds. Yolanda Burrell runs Pollinate Farm and Garden, a nursery just a few blocks away, though right now we are safely distant, talking on Zoom as well.
Yolanda, I sent you a sketch, mostly with measurements and a couple of ideas about what to do with it. And I also sent you a couple photographs so you could see sort of where the sun rises, where it sets, what it's hitting along the way.
YOLANDA BURRELL: Right.
SHAHANI: What are your initial impressions of my space?
BURRELL: It's a typical city backyard. It's got some hardscaping in it, but it has a lot of sunny space, and it also has lots of potential for growing.
SHAHANI: I've got a junkyard backyard. You might have a balcony. Whatever the scale of the project, she recommends wooden boxes.
BURRELL: In your schematic, you want to do a couple of longer boxes along the fence for your herb garden.
SHAHANI: Plain white wood like the pine they sell at Home Depot is not ideal.
BURRELL: It will last probably for three years or so, but then it's going to start to break down. Ideally, you would make them out of cedar or redwood, but that's very, very expensive.
SHAHANI: That's not in my budget. Another source of durable wood - one that's totally free - is pallets.
Pallets like they use in shipping is that right? Like those sort of multiple wooden slats...
SHAHANI: ...Held together in a sort of long, thin...
BURRELL: Yeah. Yeah, usually they're 48 by 48, and they're fairly standard size.
SHAHANI: Pallets are built to not break apart, but with a saw, hammer and pry bar, you can grab the slats and repurpose them. If you look on Craigslist or pass by grocery stores, there are lots and lots of pallets lying around. Ideally, you want the ones that are stamped with the letters HT for heat treated. That's more rot-resistant. You can build the pallets any dimension. I need mine to be long - like, 20 feet - but narrow - say, a foot and a half. Another consideration is depth. Burrell says the container should be anywhere from six to 18 inches depending on what you grow.
BURRELL: Lettuces can go - be fine in, like, a 6-inch-deep box because the roots aren't that deep. But if you wanted to grow something like, you know, broccoli or greens, leafy - other leafy greens besides lettuces and herbs, I would go a little bit deeper. And with tomatoes - if you wanted to grow tomatoes, I would recommend a minimum of 18 inches because those roots tend to go fairly deep.
SHAHANI: You can also make what's called raised beds. You do that in one of two ways. Build a box that you put on top of your soil, or don't even use a box. Grab a shovel.
BURRELL: The benefits of raised beds are that that soil is not stepped on, so it stays nice and fluffy.
SHAHANI: You're not disrupting the microorganisms that are hard at work. A great way to elevate your raised bed is put a layer of stones beneath the soil. If you're working with a smaller space, make containers out of everyday items like wooden wine boxes, old pots and dresser drawers so long as you drill a hole in the bottom and don't let any paint touch the soil - also, crates.
BURRELL: Milk crates are perfect.
SHAHANI: They have so many holes in them.
BURRELL: Yes, it's got holes in them, but it makes it perfect for growing mushrooms and potatoes and just about anything.
SHAHANI: Fun fact about mushrooms - you can grow them under your kitchen sink. The Internet sells the starter kit. You basically take mushroom spawn, mix it with food like straw or millet, put it in a plastic bag which you puncture with scissors and...
BURRELL: Check in a week or so for colonization. What you're going to see is that the inside of the bag is going to start turning white.
SHAHANI: When the bag turns fully white, tiny mushrooms will begin to emerge from the slits, and you can start to harvest - mind blown. Most plants cannot grow in darkness, which brings us to our final tip.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVEL DIGGING)
SHAHANI: Tip 5 - use sunlight intentionally. Burrell has a really simple rule of thumb here.
BURRELL: If you pick the fruit off of the plant, then it needs more sun. If you're just eating the leaves, then you need less sun. So tomatoes need sun to ripen. Squash needs sun to ripen. Cucumbers need sun to ripen - leafy greens, not so much. You know, you're not eating the fruit. You're not eating the flower. So it just needs a minimal of 4 hours of sun a day.
SHAHANI: Also, the smaller the fruit, the less sun it needs.
BURRELL: So when customers come to the shop and say, oh, I just can't grow tomatoes; I just - you know, I've got this big tree, I say, OK. Grow sun gold tomatoes.
SHAHANI: And don't try growing a big beefsteak tomato, which needs lots of light. There's not a super-general rule of thumb for water. Seed packets and the labels on starts will typically tell you. Yolanda Burrell is the reason my nephew was digging holes in the yard to test drainage.
BURRELL: You don't want your trees to have wet feet. It's called wet feet.
SHAHANI: That's cute.
Turns out we have great drainage. The five-gallon holes Akshay filled with water drained in 12 hours. We decide we want to plant trees. He and I drive to Pollinate, Burrell's nursery, to pick up our young trees.
BURRELL: Hi. How are you?
SHAHANI: We want citrus, but we're not sure which one.
What's the most likely to thrive and not be killed by us?
BURRELL: Meyers are just - they grow so well.
SHAHANI: Meyer lemon - quintessentially Northern California. She's off-mic because we're standing away from her. She's been scheduling curbside pickups one by one - no walk-ins allowed. My nephew buys blueberries for his protein shakes, and the prices have been going up. He eyes a blueberry tree.
AKSHAY: Let's do that. Are they, like, the same kind and, like, require the same amount of...
BURRELL: Yeah. The same kind of - the thing with blueberries is that they want acidic soil. So you'd have to get, like, an acidifier fertilizer that satisfies the soil.
Never mind - too much work for us. Back home, Akshay plants our very first trees. We have the Meyer lemon as well as apple, apricot and fig.
Are you excited?
AKSHAY: When they grow, yeah, I'll be super-excited. I can build a treehouse finally.
SHAHANI: (Laughter) Not for the fruit?
AKSHAY: Not really. That I can get at Costco.
Nephews. Well, I am excited for the both of us. This project is sweet victory.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVEL DIGGING)
SHAHANI: So to recap, tip 1 - develop a vision using models in your hardiness zone. Tip 2 - use soil that is healthy. Tip 3 - transplants can be easier to grow than seeds. Tip 4 - containers and raised beds are our friends. Tip 5 - the bigger the fruit, the more sunlight it needs. And if you get all or most of this, maybe you can be the next Yolanda or Ben.
FAHRER: Yeah, so you can take these off. They're good in salads, but they're actually better just sauteed a little bit. So you take these with kale or with dandelion greens or something and just, like, sautee them up, and they're so good. They have a very - it's a very different - I mean, it's really good. It's, like, sweet, but it's not bitter - not bitter at all.
SHAHANI: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We cover everything from talking to your kids about climate change to how to get the best care from your doctor. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. If you've got a good tip about COVID victory gardening or otherwise, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode was produced by Audrey Wynn. Megan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan, and our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. And special thanks to our friends at Pollinate Farm and Garden for keeping your doors open at this time. I'm Aarti Shahani. Thanks for listening.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.