Customers shop at Fort Collins Nursery in Fort Collins, Colo., on April 30, 2020. Local garden centers and Colorado master gardeners say they've seen a huge surge of interest in growing food crops in home gardens since the coronavirus pandemic upended daily life almost two months ago, leaving nearly 300,000 Coloradans unemployed and most of its residents at home under strict social distancing guidelines.
CNN  — 

Local plant nurseries are seeing spikes in seed sales.

People are starting vegetable gardens big and small, including a plethora of backyard plots and windowsill herbs.

Some plant lovers are engaged in community gardens where they work in timed shifts, maintaining proper distance while wearing masks and cleansing tools for the next use.

As people sheltering in place take up hobbies and start projects to fill the time during the coronavirus pandemic, gardening is blooming.

Caring for a garden can be a respite from the horrors of the pandemic, as it serves several natural desires related to accomplishment, community and belonging and staying connected with nature.

It can get partners and the whole family outside, happily bonding while doing an activity together.

It can also help to alleviate food insecurity as some incomes dwindle and concerns about the food supply grow.

“There’s just a greater cohesiveness within the family unit that occurs outside with your hands in the dirt,” said Charlie Hall, professor and Ellison Chair of the department of horticultural sciences at Texas A&M University.

“There’s not as much eye-rolling when teenagers are told to do something, not as much fighting between siblings. There’s fewer harsh words between spouses.”

Fulfilling human needs

Getting your hands in the dirt keeps you connected to nature while we’re staying indoors more these days. The orderliness gardening requires, with its rules and rows, can carry over into the manageability of other life tasks, Hall said. And the calmness of the activity may relieve some pent-up frustrations.

“Your cortisol levels go down dramatically when you’re in the midst of gardening,” Hall said. “And cortisol is the stress hormone in your body, so you’re less stressed.”

There’s a risk-reward ratio inherent in gardening. You have to learn to balance weather that may thwart your efforts. But that experience bears sweet tomatoes or refreshing cucumbers – offering a tangible sense of accomplishment when we’re floundering around, looking for something to focus our minds.

“You’re able to see the fruit of that effort,” Hall said. “That’s a teachable moment in people’s lives.”

And gardening may have a fitting philosophical lesson for us during this time.

“Sometimes pruning occurs,” Hall said. “That’s where the [correction in times of stress comes from]. You prune a plant so that it’s even healthier when it comes out from its pruning.”

As plants need water, fertilizer and sunlight to grow, we’re nurtured by challenge and engagement with things we enjoy, Hall added. And when plants grow so well they outgrow the space in which they’re needed, gardeners must replant them in a different space where they have the room to thrive.

“People move up into bigger areas of responsibility during their careers. There’s all kinds of metaphors that come out of gardening and how it applies to everyday life,” Hall said. “Sometimes you have to be transplanted into areas where you could grow even further.”

Good for your overall health

Gardening can be a coping mechanism during this unsettling stage of life, but it also comes with benefits for your physical and mental health.

One study found gardening, among other leisurely activities, may prevent brain shrinkage in older adults. Our cognitive abilities, including learning and memory, largely depend on the size of our brains.

Gardening has also been connected with mindfulness and alleviation of depressive symptoms. It’s a mild form of activity offering respite from staring at your screen all day. And it can improve hand-eye coordination and finger flexion – the ability to bend your joints – that carries over to everyday life.

How to start a home garden

May is not too late to start a garden. Here’s how to begin a vegetable garden for beginners, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, a print and online periodical providing planting charts for gardeners, sky schedules, weather forecasts and recipes since 1792.

Pick the right spot. Choosing a suitable location is important because it affects the quality of the vegetables, the guide says. Most vegetables need at least six hours of sunlight daily, so pick a sunny location.

If you’re not buying soil, you should have the soil in your yard tested for lead. Lead contamination is common in urban areas due to years of industrial development and pollution from manmade toxins, according to Garden Collage Magazine. If your vegetables are contaminated from the soil, that could mean lead poisoning for you or any pets roaming around. You can have your soil assessed by sending several samples to a testing site for a low cost.

Plant the vegetables in damp, not totally saturated, soil. If you have soil that doesn’t drain well, plant vegetables in a pot that’s raised from the ground. You should also garden in a place where your plants can remain stable – exposure to strong winds, floods or constant foot traffic could damage your plants.

Choose a plot size. Beginners should start small, considering what they can handle and what they’ll actually eat, the guide suggests. The size it recommends is 11 rows wide, each 10 feet long. But this guideline is to feed a family of four through an entire summer, so feel free to downsize if it’s just you.

Make sure there’s enough space between each row to be able to easily walk through to weed and harvest your plants. The rows shouldn’t be more than 4 feet wide, as you probably won’t be able to reach over a bigger width to care for the vegetables.

Select your vegetables (or any other produce). There are several vegetables that are common and easy to grow: tomatoes, radishes, chard, zucchini squash, peppers, cabbage, lettuce and carrots. Also consider what you like to eat, and again, how much you’re likely to consume. Here’s a guide to figuring out which vegetables grow best in your state.

You could buy individual starter plants or opt to start from scratch with seeds. But the seeds should be high quality, the guide says, so your money isn’t wasted if the seeds don’t germinate. The almanac recommends buying seeds from a plant nursery; you can order them online, too.

Decide where and when to plant. Planting one or two vegetables doesn’t require much strategic planning. But if you’re growing a whole garden, you’ll have to think about where each vegetable will go and when it needs to be planted.

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Some vegetables, such as lettuce and root vegetables, grow in the spring. Others, including tomatoes and peppers, should be planted in the warmer months.

Plant taller vegetables on the north side of your garden so they don’t shade shorter plants. Check to see whether the information along with your plant says it needs a permanent bed.

Lastly, stagger your plantings. Don’t plant all your seeds at one time, or you’ll have a vegetable bounty that needs to be harvested and consumed in a tight time window. If you stagger your plantings, you’ll have a steady supply of food coming in.