The novel coronavirus and response to stop the spread of COVID-19 have led to an increased interest in gardening this growing season. Whether driven by anxieties about food supply, worries about spreading the virus during essential grocery runs or simply looking for an activity to pass the time, the number of home gardens is expected to during the coronavirus pandemic. These new growing spaces have been dubbed coronavirus victory gardens, as news outlets compare the renewed interest in backyard gardens to the patriotic movement during both world wars when the government encouraged people to grow food for themselves and neighbors.
Small farms can help experienced and new gardeners alike by offering transplant vegetables. These, of course, are seedlings started in the greenhouse and sold as plants.
The farmers at Brookville, Maryland’s Sharp’s at Waterford specialize in vegetable transplants. Starts added a revenue stream and maximized the greenhouse that’s already part of their operation.
“Historically, we were commercial veggie growers and needed the greenhouses for production of our own transplants,” explained Denise Sharp. Her husband’s family started the farm in the early 1900s.
“We started to grow veggie transplants for others, including market gardeners, small commercial growers and retail customers.”
Sharp offers her advice for starting out based on her experience.
Offer a Selection
Tomatoes, basil, peppers and squash are the most requested plants. Herbs, lettuces, cucumbers, broccoli and cabbage plants can also be good sellers.
Understanding the customer base is key when deciding what to grow. Urban gardeners will have less space, likely growing in containers and thus needing upright plants.
Space is less of a concern in suburban and rural areas where low-growing vine plants can be successful.
For tomatoes, Sharp recommends growing several varieties. Heirlooms are popular but take 80 days to mature. Faster-growing varieties produce fruit within 70 days.
“Offering multiple varieties also gives customers a reason to come and visit rather than you being a mass marketer,” Sharp said.
Supplementing the vegetable plants with companion plants gives customers more options and supports a healthy garden, according to Sharp.
Marigolds are a trap crop for thrips, attracting the insects away from peppers and other vegetables. Tall cutting flowers—like Cosmos, Zinnias and statice—provide habitat for beneficial bugs.
Early in the season, plants such as Alyssum and black pearl, an ornamental pepper, support pollinators.
What Not to Do
Sharp says there are two mistakes she sees first-time transplant growers make: miscalculating the time to maturity and skipping a hardening time.
Under- or overestimating the time from planting to maturity affects profitability. Plants started too early became too tall and leggy, making them undesirable to customers.
Those planted too late won’t mature in time. Depending on demand, that means it may take two, three, four or five different plantings of a crop to meet customer demand throughout the season.
“Home gardeners are impulsive they are going to buy when the weather is good and not when it’s raining,” Sharp said. “Your plants have to be ready when they are. It’s different than raising transplants for commercial growers who know exactly how many plugs they want and when.”
Since seedlings for coronavirus victory gardens get their start in warm, humid greenhouses, they need to acclimate to outdoor conditions.
Gardening guides like the University of Maryland Extension Service recommend hardening transplants one to two weeks before planting by moving them out on warm days and bringing them in at night. That much shuffling can be impractical for larger quantities. Creating a separate area that is closer to a greenhouse door, building a cold frame or using an unheated greenhouse is another option.
“Knowing when, how and not overdoing it is an absolute must for market garden plants,” Sharp said.
Marketing & Sales
This resurgence of victory gardens may represent the first time someone plants a garden. Or perhaps they are looking at growing different types of vegetables.
Plan on seasoned gardeners and newcomers alike asking about available varieties, planting tips and more.
“People will have questions about how to can and freeze what they’re growing,” she said. “They’ll also ask how to trellis or for advice on disease control. You need to be able to answer those types of questions.”
The coronavirus pandemic is changing the way businesses operate. Farms are considered essential business and still allowed to operate.
Setting up methods for online orders that allow for pick-up or delivery gives customers the flexibility to follow safety recommendations while still shopping local for their garden veggie plants.