Adrian Higgins on creating a modern-day victory garden, and more

By Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post
Apr 09, 2020

Washington Post gardening columnist Adrian Higgins took questions on gardening.

I've been struggling to start my vegetable garden this year because of a reluctance to go to my local hardware store to pick up plants. (Decided last fall that I wasn't going to bother with starting seeds indoor this year- what a mistake!) On the one hand, growing food means less trips out once warm weather hits and patronizing the hardware store= justification to keep employees on the payroll; on the other hand, starting my garden doesn't feel "essential" and means another trip out during the most crucial period of social distancing. I won't starve if don't get pepper and tomato seedlings. Is there a moral calculus we can apply to these kinds of quandaries?

Hello, and greetings to all. If you are lucky to have a garden space, you have an ideal environment to self-isolate while being with nature and cultivating plants, what better way to cope with this the pandemic? It is possible in our mail order delivery world to obtain the basic things you need to have a successful garden year. First, seed companies, while deluged and running out of some things, can still supply seeds for veggies, annuals and herbs. You can actually grow tomato plants by direct sowing in garden soil (or in a container until they are ready to be potted on or transplanted), but sow the seeds in a couple of weeks after the soil has warmed. I would keep them in a protected and at first a partially shaded location and stay on top of watering. They will soon grow in the gathering heat. The tomato harvest may be delayed three or four weeks, but you will get one. 

Please advise, for an organic vegetable garden, in 4 feet wide strip(s) and possinly in raised beds, what are good recommended garden dimensions for family sizes of 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 who will grow the majority of the produce they eat fresh, but not necessarily preserve it? This information will accompany your Monday 4/6 article. I'm an organizer of a covid-19 inspired community-wide Victory Gardens movement - that is, pulling together resources and connections for newbie vegetable gardeners. Our initial motivation is to expand local food resilience (climate action) and help the suddenly enlarged ranks of families struggling financially (social justice).

I think you would need at least a quarter acre intensively cultivated to provide for a family of four, but it's not like going to the grocery store, you will have to wait for crops to come in, and then you have to deal with a surfeit. To mitigate that, plant a diverse range of vegetables and herbs, and sequence sowing so that for, say, lettuce, carrots, and beans, you have beds in various stages of development. If you have limited gardening experience, this would be a completely overwhelming model. Start small and expand as you can. 

Hi Adrian, Last year I moved to a rural area and had planned to start a vegetable garden this year. Now we're in a pandemic and I feel the need is more urgent to start one. However, I have a lot of wildlife around - deer, turkeys, lots of other birds, chipmunks, even the occasional bear or moose! No offense to the wildlife, but I want to enjoy the fruits of my hard work - I'm not creating a buffet for their benefit. I understand this will require some serious fencing. Any suggestions for a short-term fence to get me started and a more permanent fence once things settle down a bit? Space, luckily, is not an issue. Thanks!

Given your pressure of furry guests, I would not start with a flimsy fence, I would built a fortress, and you should do this before you grow anything so that they are none the wiser. There are agricultural fencing companies that specialize in keeping livestock in and animals out. Another very effective option in a rural area is electrified wire fencing. 

Hello. My home's previous owner installed a huge gravel parking lot on the only flat part of the site. I would like to remove most of it and install a greener play surface. The rest of the yard is native woodlands, so I'd like to avoid anything that spreads aggressively. What would you recommend? Also, how to I make the compacted ground suitable for plants, once the gravel is removed? Thanks.

This may sound strange, but you could plant through the gravel to create what's known as a gravel garden. Assuming the underlying site conditions are reasonably well drained and somewhat sunny, you can plant plants for dry situations. You can improve the soil as you plant, but most dry loving perennials, bulbs and shrubs like things on the poor side.  One exemplar of this was the late Beth Chatto in England, who created a model gravel garden and wrote a book about plants for the dry garden. Many botanic gardens in the United States have such demonstration gardens -- Denver being a good example. 

I've come to the conclusion that composting is a waste of time. I'd tried various processes, areas, contents of the 'pile'. All I'd end up with was millions of ants, and literally years of waiting for usable product. Now, as I gather rinds, bits of carrot, etc., I dig it directly into the garden. I try to bury just before rain, and within a day or two, the bits have virtually disappeared. Sometimes I bury bits as I plant tomatoes, etc, and it works great. Animals would dig up the compost, but they don't dig up the garden, too.

That is one way to do it. Burying fish and crab carcasses  is a time honored way to feed the soil, though I'd be wary of doing that in rodent rich areas. One way to keep ants out of the compost pile is to turn it more often, which will hasten decomposition. 

My New England garden is bedeviled by rabbits and chipmunks. I have tried several methods of discouragement (chicken wire fencing, pepper flakes, planting bulbs wrapped in chicken wire, etc. to no avail. Is there a method, or a product, that will deter, rather than kill them?

It is possible to exclude rabbits with chicken wire, but you have to form an outward flap at the perimeter, and bury it a little. Make sure the gate to such a place is similarly blocked. Chipmunks are a bigger problem if populations are allowed to grow, though your bulb stealers may be voles. Voles I would trap. Anything you can do to attract snakes or raptors to your environment would help. I'm not a big fan of repellents, but they can be helpful.  

northern virginia resident. approx 400 sq ft garden. this will be my 3rd summer growing food. from mid june to mid sept my garden supplies most of our vegetable needs. there is something wonderful about walking outside and picking something for dinner. fresh peas, greens, grilled eggplant, grilled zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, ground cherries, melons, beans, fennel, all flavored with fresh herbs.

Hooray. That would be a perfectly sized garden for a lot of folks, 20 feet by 20. 

I have been considering planting sweet potatoes, but have heard they are favored by rodents in the city. Any advice?

Unfortunately they are a favorite of rats. And if you think you have rats in the 'hood, I'd avoid them. I'd also avoid the related ornamental sweet potato vines. Grow spuds instead.    

What's your take on the square foot gardening method? I like the idea of not thinning by sowing at final row spacing, but traditional rows clearly have staying power.

Square foot gardening is a system of growing veggies in blocks as opposed to rows and became popular in the 1970s. I've never felt the need to worship at that altar. What more important is that individual varieties have the room they need to grow, so thinning and spacing is the key to a happy and fruitful plant. I sow my seeds in rows because I like the embroidery of it, but it also allows me to quickly detect weeds that are not part of the plan. It also allows me to cultivate the soil between rows, which is important to break up the soil crust and to get air and moisture to your plants. 

What should I do with last years blooms on my plants? Should I prune them back or just let them stay?

You don't have to remove them, they will fade on their own. You can trim them off if you want to groom the plant, but be careful not to lose any of this year's buds. I thought the precocious spring this year, which induced my hydrangeas into growth in early March, would lead to frost damage, but we've had it so mild these past few weeks, that we may have dodged that bullet. 

So funny you said this: "Anything you can do to attract snakes or raptors to your environment would help." For the 1st time in the 20 years I've lived in my house, I've seen several snakes. And a lot of other wildlife as well. Have you noticed this?

I know that the idea of snakes upsets a lot of people, most are non venomous and harmless, but they are wondrous creatures and reflect a garden that is in harmony with nature. If you do want to draw them, they like to hang out in wood piles, stone piles and in bales of straw.  They are also drawn to ornamental ponds -- they will eat goldfish. 

Hi, I'm not able to create an in-ground garden due to physical limitations, so I'd like to try planting bags or containers. What type of soil is best for this? Any other advice on this?

Generally, the large the container the better, because temperature and hydration swings are tempered in larger volumes of soil, and plants can develop fuller root systems. But large containers can gobble up lots of soil, which can be expensive if you're using potting mixes. You can address that by filling the bottom few inches of a pot with gravel and/or compost, and then reserve the upper half for a good potting mix. I do recommend potting mixes over garden soil because they are sterile, free draining, moisture retentive and lighter. Also, make sure the soil line is an inch below the lip of the pot, so that you can water efficiently. I also like to give many of my container plants a mulch of pea gravel, which reflects light and keeps the plants a little cooler. 

I started some vegetable seeds indoors and the cucumbers quickly outgrew their containers, which would be great except it seems like it’s still too cold to transplant them into the garden? Can I try it or should I separate them into larger containers? I have limited windowsill space and raised beds in a DC community garden. Thanks!!

They can go out, but should be brought inside if nighttime temperatures dip below 50 degrees. In conditioning transplants to garden beds, it's important not only to protect them from cold nights, but sunny and windy days. So harden them off by placing them in a sheltered location for a week. 

Good afternoon, our witch hazel and Korean spice viburnum bloomed very little this year. Is that due to the mild winter? Or was last summer too hot? (I watered regularly last summer.) In previous years, the blooms have been plentiful. Thank you very much.

They bloomed early because the mild winter induced growth after they had accumulated enough chilling hours earlier in the winter. Early blooming is nice, but it brings with it the risk of freeze damage to the blossoms. The winter was a bust as winters go, and the worry has to be that plants that need longer chilling hours will suffer from insufficient hibernation. 

Where can i get potatoes for planting? can I just plant the regular ones from the grocery store?

If you cannot get seed potatoes from mail order sources or even rural feed stores, you could grow them from grocery store spuds. They are treated to inhibit growth, but that will eventually wear off. But you shouldn't plant them until you start to see the eyes break into growth, and if you are cutting them, then you will need to allow the wound to callus for a day or so before planting. Russet potatoes don't like Mid Atlantic conditions so find a bag of potatoes grown within the region, if you can. 

A year ago, I had a rotten wooden retaining wall replaced with a nice decorative block wall, 55 feet long. The landscapers saved most of my trees and bushes that were in front of the wall. Unfortunately, they threw grass seed everywhere, and it's growing in places where my lawnmower won't fit: between the bushes and the wall, and in between the bushes themselves. What's the best way to get rid of the grass? I don't want to use Roundup.

Unwanted grass seedlings are a bane because they are deep rooted. The more you can pull them out before they anchor and run, the better. I use a trowel and get as deep as I can, but I do this only when the soil is sufficiently moist. You can just keep cutting the blades right to the ground and eventually, if you are persistent, they will run out of steam. Alas, we have run out of time. I hope you find succor in the garden at this time and I will see you here again soon. 

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Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins is The Washington Post's gardening columnist. Read his latest columns and stories here and follow him on Twitter.
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