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A Practical Guide to Starting a Pandemic Garden

Yes, you're going to kill some plants at first. Here's how to keep going.

Just about everybody I know is planting a garden this spring.

It makes sense. Whether you're concerned about long-term food security, want to have access to fresh produce in between trips to New Seasons, or just want to stave off boredom-induced psychosis while in quarantine, there are lots of good reasons to start a pandemic garden.

Unfortunately, lots of novice gardeners tend to tumble into the hobby headlong with little planning or research—I was no different. Then, when something goes wrong, there's a powerful temptation to say, "I guess I just can't keep plants alive," and quit.

It doesn't have to be that way. After consulting with a couple of experts—and mining my own years of experience in the "field," so to speak— here's what you need to know about starting your garden, and keeping it growing.

There is no such thing as a “green thumb.”

It's easy to get discouraged when your plants get shredded by bugs, or when you dig up your potatoes and find they're all half an inch in diameter because you planted them too close together. But it's important not to get immediately discouraged. Many successful gardeners are actually serial failures who decided to frame their failures as learning experiences rather than evidence they suck at plant care.

"Don't lose heart," says Weston Miller, a faculty member for Oregon State University's Extension Service who runs the master gardener program for the Portland metro area. "Even people who are experienced vegetable gardeners run into problems, too, because we're at the whims of weather and pests."

Start small and start easy.

Think about what you can feasibly grow in your space, what's worth the effort for you and the rest of your household, and what can feasibly be planted right now. For instance, it's too late to start tomatoes from seed, but late May to early June is an ideal time to get starts in the ground.

If you don't have a lot of space, you might want to skip onions, carrots or potatoes. Fruiting plants like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers might be out of the question if you don't get a lot of sunlight on your garden. But lettuce, chard and collards do fine in filtered or indirect light, and so do most perennial kitchen herbs, like parsley or chives.

Miller also notes that a lot of novice gardeners don't research soil conditions before they get going and find their plants' growth stunted as a result. If you're planting directly in your backyard, get the soil tested for lead and other contaminants, and also check its pH, since Western Oregon's soil is slightly more acidic than many food plants prefer. If you're planting in raised beds, use a potting mix rather than just dumping in compost, as many novice gardeners do, he says.

Do your research—and be skeptical.

There's bad gardening information everywhere, from gimmicky Pinterest hacks to home magazines, and it sets people up to fail and blame themselves.

"Sometimes in home magazines, you see beautiful photographs of herbs [growing] in people's kitchens. That never works," says Maggie Stuckey, co-author of The Bountiful Container. "It makes a pretty photograph, but it never works."

Stuckey set out to write The Bountiful Container after moving into a condo in Portland and finding no container gardening books that actually mentioned growing food. I recommend it wholeheartedly. Miller recommends Seattle Tilth's Maritime Northwest Garden Guide for novices in the Pacific Northwest—crucially, it lists vegetable varieties that thrive in this region. Steve Solomon's Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades and The New Sunset Western Garden Book is a useful at-a-glance guide to specific plants.

Also, the vegetable gardening module of OSU's master gardener program is available for free. The program has an Ask an Expert service where you can reach out to college-certified master gardeners online and get an email response within a couple of days.

Find your plant people.

Given the veil of shame people drape over themselves any time a plant in their care dies, you would think there would be a lot of gatekeeping in the gardening community. In fact, there is way less "name three of their albums" nonsense in gardening than other subcultures.

Stuckey says a beginning gardener's best friend is an older next-door neighbor. Failing that, join a garden club—right now, that means looking online or posting in neighborhood forums to ask if anyone is available for gardening advice or troubleshooting.

"People who love gardening are incredibly generous with their time and information," Stuckey says. "You just have to find them, and I can't think of a better way than social media."

How to Get Growing

Nurseries are essential businesses, but they're all operating a little differently right now. The Oregon Association of Nurseries has a list of nurseries and their current policies on its website, and a separate guide to nurseries selling plants and seeds online.

Since individual and store policies and hours are changing rapidly, if you want to pick up plants in person, it's a good idea to call first to get squared away on stores' current policies. (For example, OAN's website says Portland Nursery is taking orders over the phone, but we're told that's not the case.)

Portland Nursery, 5050 SE Stark and 9000 SE Division. Both locations are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily with front gates closing at 5:30 p.m. Masks required for customers.

Dennis' 7 Dees, 10455 SW Butner Rd., with additional locations in Tigard, Lake Oswego and Seaside. The Portland/Cedar Hills location is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Curbside pickup is available (order through the newly-launched e-commerce site), as is delivery.

Livingscape, 3926 N. Vancouver Ave. Livingscape is in the process of converting to email ordering for pickup; you can find inventory lists on the website or email the store with what you're looking for. Debit/credit cards are preferred for payment, and payments for pickup orders can be made over the phone.

Garden Fever, 3433 NE 24th Ave. Open for curbside pickup 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Visit the website for lists of plants in stock and submit an order list via email.