Back to the Soil in the Time of Covid

Words by Penny Neef.
Images courtesy of Penny Neef (and her daughters).

What is it about a pandemic that makes you want to dig in the dirt, plant some seeds, and eat things that are grown in your own backyard?

The not-going-to-the-grocery-store-because-there-are-germs-everywhere is part of it. The excessive amount of time you suddenly have at home helps. There is a feeling that maybe you should learn to live off the land, just in case. The satisfaction, and taste, of a perfectly ripe tomato is a big bonus.

I have always gardened in one form or another. I come from gardeners and farmers. I’ve had a huge vegetable garden, shared with a neighbor. I’ve had a hillside of day lilies that the deer and I fought over. I’ve had one patio tomato in a pot. 

Two plants (one is definitely tomatoes, outside a small teal shed.

These days, I am content with the perennials that the deer won’t eat, like daisies, hydrangeas, and iris. I’m still fighting with the deer over the roses, asters, and hosta. I have two, raised-bed vegetable gardens where I grow spinach and lettuce in the early spring and tomato, peppers and eggplant in the summer.

I have two daughters who have never had much of an interest in gardening. The appeal of digging in the dirt in the spring was lost on them. Maybe I should have gotten them more involved, but the garden was often my escape. I relished the time alone.

Now we are in the midst of a pandemic, and guess which two smart, capable daughters are growing things? To be fair, my daughter, the doctor, started her first garden last year, when she finally had a house with enough land (3 acres) to grow a proper garden. This year, even though she is still hard at work at the hospital, she has expanded both her vegetable and flower gardens. She has discovered that she likes digging in the dirt. She is far away, in Michigan, but she Facetimes me regularly with questions about flowers, vegetables, soil and garden maintenance. I wish I was there to dig in the dirt with her. Maybe someday.

a puppy stands to the side of a garden

My other daughter, the lawyer, suddenly found herself working from home in mid-March. Before I could even offer my advice, she had ordered two raised beds from Amazon, filled them with good dirt, and planted tomatoes and corn. I strongly advised against the corn. I’ve tried growing corn many times without much success, but you should see her corn. It was way higher than an elephant’s eye by the 4th of July. It looks like she’s going to have a good crop. She’s already harvesting some beautiful tomatoes.

Why this sudden interest? My daughter, the lawyer, says being at home gave her a chance to track the sun in her (mostly) shady yard and finally figure out where she could put a garden. She says “My garden makes me feel like a ‘40s housewife doing my part at home while the men go off to war. Tomatoes for victory!” Note – her husband is also working from home during this time. I think she’s excited that she has proved me wrong, because her corn is thriving. It’s corn for popping, not eating. She can’t wait to pop her own corn.

A small dog in a yard with a garden

My daughter, the doctor, says she is more than happy to share the household chores like cooking and cleaning with her family. “Gardening surprised me because it doesn’t feel like a chore. I can get outside, get my hands in the soil, learn, and create something new. It lets my hands be productive while my mind becomes quieter. There is literally nothing that tastes better than home grown tomatoes and basil with fresh goat cheese from the farm down the road.” 

My friend, the author, Desiree Cooper has always gardened, but this year she “dove deep” into the soil in her backyard. Desiree is isolated at home, taking care of her elderly parents who both have Alzheimer’s. “Leaving the house is not only inconvenient for me, it’s now dangerous.”

She “wondered about the food supply chain and how much disruption we might experience in our everyday lives.” Her garden has provided food, joy and hope. “I can’t tell you how amazing the smell of herbs can be. The aromatherapy fills my lungs and my soul. I’m growing lemon balm, lavender, rosemary, basil, sage, and cilantro. Sometimes, I cut off sprigs and put them in my face mask when I take a walk.”

“I’ve also planted a little patch of hope. I planted watermelons. I have a vision of this being over soon so that my grandchildren can come over and pick them when they’re ripe.” 

Use some of your extra time these days to read Desiree’s stunning book of flash fiction, Know the Mother. It is a book of short stories about being a mother, a wife, a sister, and a black woman, that will touch your soul.

If you’ve decided now is the time to sow those seeds and you have no idea how to start, your friendly neighborhood cooperative extension agent is here (virtually) to help. Mike Andruczyk, VCE-Horticulture Agent for Chesapeake, used to do many in-person presentations about gardening. Now he is answering questions on the phone and via email. His office has implemented a virtual Help Desk, manned by Master Gardeners.

tiny tomatoes on their plant just turning ripe

Andruczyk’s number one tip for beginners? “Plant a small number of plants but give them enough room. If you plant too much, oftentimes the weeds and watering gets overwhelming and/or you plant too close and the plants are unproductive. Less is more!”

He continues, “There are no Green or Brown Thumbs, only Thumbs that are more or less experienced, committed or willing to try new things. Talk to neighbors, relatives, or call us for help. There are lots of gardeners out there that love to share their successes and failures.”

Click here to find your local Virginia Cooperative Extension for help with your garden, your lawn, your trees or your grass. 
This is a great time to garden, to learn how to garden, or to expand your gardening skills. Gardening is something good that can come from something bad. “When the world wearies and society fails to satisfy, there is always the garden.” – Minnie Aumonier

Let’s Get Growing!

Words by Frank Connelly.
Images courtesy of Vince and Valerie Zangard
and Frank Connelly.

COVID-19 has caused many of us, who are sequestered at home, to discover or perhaps rediscover skills that our forebears took for granted.  Skills that may include baking, music and gardening.  Vince and Valerie Zangardi are an example of a couple who discovered their love of gardening and who wish to help others to learn how to grow vegetables and other produce in their very own yard.

The drive to Valerie and Vince Zangardi’s home in Williamsburg West was a pleasant one.  The weather was somewhat overcast but the air smelled fresh and clean from a recent rainstorm.  My day became even brighter when I met up with Vince and Valerie.

Vince and Valerie in front of their garden.

Vince and Valerie are a young couple with matinee idol looks and a passion for each other that permeates through everything they touch and do.  Their garden which they affectionately call ZangardenVA is the result of that passion. It is quite beautiful and a delight to experience. That passion also extends toward others and their hope to share their gardening expertise with everyone.

My tour of their garden began with their front yard.  Vince identified every plant or tree that was there.  Each were flourishing with purpose.  He identified fig trees, Russian Pomegranate, Peach trees and others.  As we moved to the back yard he identified a granny apple tree that was showing signs of fruit growth.  He explained that an apple tree needs to have a chalice shape that allows light to flow through the center.

Some plants in the ground with a chicken coop behind them.

We then made our way to the garden itself.  There were several raised beds with hanging trellises that had several types of vegetables. They also had a small chicken house attached to the garden. Valerie identified for me three types of radishes, carrots, raspberries, eggplant, jalapeno, snap peas, English peas, tomatillo, cantaloupe and tomatoes.  It was clear to me that a lot of time and effort was put into the garden.  It all had a sense of purpose and was a delight to my eyes and nose.

We all took the opportunity to sit within the garden as I had many questions about it and their hopes for the future. It all started when they were initially living in a duplex and had limited space. They had some cherry tomatoes and experimented with container gardening.  But then they then moved to their current home which had a rudimentary garden.

The garden with its current layout took over four years to establish.  It took a lot of trial and error but they are now able to harvest hundreds of pounds of natural food for their dining pleasure.  Some vegetables such as cucumbers which become pickles are in such abundance that they can sell them.  They can sell enough pickles that it subsidizes much of the expense of the entire garden.

Lines of cans from Vince and Valerie's store.

Planning a garden as explained by Vince is like solving a puzzle.  The idea is to provide balance for your garden space.  Raised beds are a necessity as they drain better than planting in the ground. You need to write down where to plant it depending on the season.  Planning needs to start five months in advance.  It is a good idea to leave space in the raised bed for various seasons.  Plants that grow well in the summer may have extra space nearby for plants that grow well in the fall.

Aesthetics are also an important part of the design for the garden.  As their bean sprouts grow they envision a canape that grows over the garden. The canape would envelop the garden and would allow them to have their own unique space where they can enjoy cocktails and truly commune with nature.

The most difficult part for anyone who wants a garden is how to get started.  Valerie and Vince have an answer for that and they want to help you to establish your own garden.  But they do want to emphasize that it does take work.  Everybody can grow a lot of food with one 4 x 8 raised garden.  They believe that everyone who grows 10% of their own food will be 10 % less they would need to buy at the grocery store.  Valerie and Vince will come to you and provide consultation on how you can have a beautiful and flourishing garden.

Vince bends down to check on a plant.

Vince has a dream for the community.  He wants to establish a community garden.  He has been eyeing a parcel of property near the Peter Chang restaurant in Williamsburg.  The idea is that the community would have interest in the property and grow their own vegetables.  But it would need corporate support.  He imagines how joyful and productive it would be for families to harvest their own vegetables.

My very pleasant time ended with Valerie and Vince as we bid our adieu. They then picked several radishes for me which allowed me to have a superb salad that evening.

Let’s Get Growing!

If you would like to have consultation on your home garden contact Vince and Valerie via email.  They also have a Facebook page.