Why a vegetable garden?


By Steve Reiners, Professor and Chair, Horticulture Section, Cornell University, Cornell AgriTech. This is part of a series of columns that he wrote about vegetable gardening during the pandemic that ran Spring-Summer 2020. Read more articles from 2020 | Read later articles in this series.

March 27, 2020

Over the last few weeks, Americans have been forced to deal with a terrible pandemic, often feeling frustrated as to what they can do.  One of the best things you can do is take a break from the news and social media and get outside.

Research shows spending time in nature relieve stress and anxiety, improves your mood, and boosts feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Those are all things we need right now.  Fortunately, it’s late March, days are getting longer, and we can get outside and start gardening.  For those with kids at home, use gardening to teach science, biology, environmental studies and even math. (How many seeds do I need in a 10-foot row with seeds spaced 2 inches apart?)  For some of our more experienced master gardeners, share your expertise, even if it’s a conversation over the fence.  There’s no reason not to have some fresh produce even if space is limited.  Over the next few months, we will cover lots of things you can do to be successful.

It seems simple enough.  Throw a few seeds in the ground, wait two or three months, harvest and eat.  Experienced gardeners would rightfully argue that there is a lot more to it, and of course there is.  But if you plan well, start small with an optimum location, and are willing to spend a few minutes every day in your garden (getting exercise and breathing fresh air), there is no reason why you can’t be successful the first time out.

Benefits of gardening

First things first – why a vegetable garden? 

First is the benefit of becoming more active.  Getting outside and digging, planting and weeding will burn calories as well as a gym membership.  And if we can get our kids involved and away from their video games and social media, we may create a fitter generation. 

Second, how about better tasting vegetables?  In the markets right now, you can still find some local produce.  New York is a major producer of cabbage, onions, and potatoes and growers will store these in large warehouses and sell them through the winter.  But most of the vegetables you see in the market right now are shipped from thousands of miles away.  They are often picked at the best time for shipping but not at the peak of flavor or nutritional content.  And the varieties they grow are not chosen because they taste great.  That’s why our locally grown vegetables from nearby farms taste so much better.  Think how good they will be when they are still warm from the garden. 

Third, you will know exactly what has been applied to your garden.  Using or not using chemicals or fertilizer will be your decision.  And those decisions give you better insight into what our local growers go through every day – how to produce and market a crop and do so in a way that ensures a healthy product and sustains their farm and family.

Finally, in a more and more complex world where we rely on technology from cars to computers yet have no idea how they work, isn’t it great to do something as simple as planting a seed, nurturing it, enjoying its beauty and finally its taste.

Information I'll be sharing

What I’m hoping to do with this column over the next few months is walk novices through the process and help experienced gardeners improve their gardens.  My full-time job, as a Professor of Horticulture at Cornell, is working with commercial vegetable farmers. But I’ve had lots of experience with all types of vegetable gardening.  Since I’m writing this in Geneva, N.Y., I’ll be focused on the things that are occurring here in upstate New York. I’ll draw on my colleagues at Cornell, as well as educators with Cornell Cooperative Extension for their expertise and help.  And I’ll be happy to answer your questions. You can have a great vegetable garden and a wonderful experience, and next week, I’ll tell you how to get started. 

Things you can do right now…

  • Take inventory of your stored seeds. Do you need to order some new ones?  Most vegetable seed would be fine for about three years if stored in your house.  Make sure you have peas and spinach seed, as well as other greens, as some of those can be planted April 1.
  • Make a list of the vegetables you would most like to grow.  I’ll have a future column that will detail which veggies are the most productive in limited space.
  • Clean up everything in your garden from last fall.  I have bad news for you – all those old plants and weeds need to be taken out before the season starts.
  • Put old plants in your compost (if you don’t have one, we’ll talk about that in the future) or in another part of the yard.  Don’t send the plants to the landfill!
  • If the soil is dry enough, rake the soil to prepare for planting spinach and peas, which could start after April 1.
  • To help heat the soil to get faster germination, after planting spinach or pea seed, cover with clear plastic wrap and hold it down with some soil or rocks. The sun will heat the soil and seeds will jump out of the ground.  Once they pop, take the plastic off, roll up and use in the future.
  • Check on your planting supplies if you want to start some things inside like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant.  Do you have containers and potting soil? 
  • It’s too early to start the tomatoes inside now. But things like lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, parsley and most greens could go in, preferably under lights or in the sunniest window you have.