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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Everyone Should Grow a Tiny Victory Garden — Here’s How to Start

published May 20, 2020
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You may have noticed that nearly everyone around you seems suddenly interested in growing things. (If not, perhaps it’s because you were busy tending to your sourdough starter.) 

As most of the country enters another month of lockdown, gardening has emerged as a favorite COVID-19 coping mechanism. And it’s easy to understand why so many are gravitating to gardening right now, whether that means installing raised beds in their backyards or just rooting their scallions in a jar of water on their windowsill

As some grocery store shelves remain bare, and shopping trips become more spaced out, the allure of growing your own food, and relying a tiny bit less on the supply chain, is undeniable (hence the resurgence of a wartime relic, the victory garden). “I think part of the big surge in gardening is that there’s an instinctual urge to provide for yourself, or your family, or your neighbors,” says Maureen O’Brien, a community garden educator at Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Beyond the tiny act of sovereignty in snipping off a few leaves of homegrown lettuce for salad, gardening can also feel like self-care: the slowed-down pace, the art of tending and nurturing, and the fact that it’s all happening away from a screen feels meditative. “When you’re gardening, you are genuinely putting your hands in the soil, and paying attention,” says Amy Pennington, who plans and installs edible gardens for homes and businesses. “That’s grounding. It’s a beautiful practice. And I think it certainly helps with stress, because you have to move a little bit slower, and it’s just quiet work.”  

Coronavirus has forced many of us into a stressful, restless isolation for weeks and weeks, but if there’s any tiny sliver of silver lining to be found, it’s that the nationwide lockdown began right at the onset of growing season. In spring, blooms are popping up and plants are unfurling new buds, regardless of what’s happening on the news. Temperatures are warming and the danger of frost has subsided in most of the country. There’s literally no better time to try your hand at gardening than right now. 

Gardening may seem like a hobby that requires lots of outdoor space, supplies, and expertise, but it really isn’t — even if all you have is a sunny windowsill, you can partake in the tiny thrills of watching a seedling grow and yield food. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Whether you’re working with a tiny balcony, a few square feet of dirt, or a window box; whether your porch is soaked in 10 hours of sunlight a day or you live in the shadow of a high-rise, you can start your own tiny victory garden. (But not on fire escapes! Those are for fire fighters.) And you’ll almost certainly reap the rewards, be it fresh, homegrown basil in your pesto or a tiny, juicy, ruby-red tomato in your salad. 

Over the next few days, we’ll be sharing tips and advice from small-space gardening experts for making the most of your space and conditions, and getting the most enjoyment out of your tiny victory garden. You’ll learn how to choose the right plant for your space, how to take care of it, and how to avoid some of the most common rookie mistakes. And since a trip to a big-box garden center is still unrealistic for many, we’ll also share advice for sourcing plants, finding supplies, and making use of what you have around the house. 

Day One: Do Your (Tiny) Homework 

For the best gardening results, you don’t need fancy fertilizer, pricey soil, or folk farming wisdom. You just need a good old-fashioned plan. 

To get started, take a little time to assess your space, your conditions, and your own hopes for what your garden can be.

Homework #1: How much sunlight do you get?

One of the first and most important questions to consider is how much sunlight does your space get in one day? “Sunlight really will be the biggest factor in what you’ll be able to grow successfully,” says O’Brien, adding that “full sun” plants will require a bare minimum of six hours of unobstructed sunlight (although preferably more like eight to 12 hours). Anything less, and your space falls in the “partial sun” category. (Fear not: You can work with that.) 

Then it’s time to do plant dreaming. Check out which USDA Plant Hardiness Zone you’re in, and double-check to make sure your favorite plants can grow there easily. (Chatting with fellow gardeners in your zone is a great way to discover plants that thrive in your conditions.) If you have plants in mind already, research them to see whether their needs align with your space. 

Homework #2: How big is your space?

Speaking of space: how much of it do you have? Do you have a bare windowsill or stoop? A balcony? A scrap of yard? A small balcony is perfect for a few containers, but will be quickly overtaken by a sprawling indeterminate tomato plant — in that environment, plants that grow vertically might be best. How much room do you have for containers? Certain plants with big root systems require large, deep containers (and lots of soil) to themselves; meanwhile, you can grow a half-dozen heads of lettuce in a narrow, shallow window box. Be sure to research how much space a single plant needs in order to grow, too — preferably before you bring home 10 of them. Over-stuffing a planter or bed will only result in stunted plants. 

Homework #3: What do you dream of eating from your garden?

Last, but perhaps most important, think about what you like to eat. If cilantro tastes like Dial to you, then a big pot of the stuff probably won’t be very rewarding. Conversely, if you live for a fresh, crispy, crunchy salad, then a garden of lettuce, spinach, and arugula is probably right up your alley. “Matching the space to your expectations and your conditions is definitely important for new growers,” says O’Brien. “And growing what you like is important.” 

Next up: Where to find supplies for your Tiny Victory Garden.

This post originally ran on Apartment Therapy. See it there: Here’s Why Everyone Should Grow a Tiny Victory Garden (and How to Start)