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caption: Trays of pea shoots growing inside the greenhouse at Rainier Beach Urban Farm. 
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Trays of pea shoots growing inside the greenhouse at Rainier Beach Urban Farm.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

Covid started gardening boom. Now new challenges fuel interest

So, you and hundreds of your neighbors started a vegetable garden during Covid lockdown. After two years, studies show the hobby is becoming an enduring habit. And now, rising food costs are attracting a new crop of enthusiasts.

Joy Silas has tried to grow vegetables before, but without success. Last fall, she gave it another try. This time, she had a good harvest.

“I had kale, collard greens, spinach, and arugula,” Silas said. “A lot of leafy greens I grew and they were successful.”

Silas is a stay-at-home mom in Tumwater. She credits her gardening success to the classes she took that helped her realize past mistakes.

“When you learn these things, you start to put together 'Oh, of course, I wouldn’t try to grow lettuce when it’s 100 degrees outside. They need cooler weather,'” Silas said. “That was the thrill in it, kind of learning from my mistakes and just getting those aha moments.”

The pandemic’s gardening boom kept nurseries busy. Seed companies were caught off guard and ran out of seeds. And non-profits like Tilth Alliance, got swamped with phone calls or emails. Many of the questions were about soil. Turns out, people built raised beds, but often filled them with compost.

Laura Matter, Tilth’s program director, oversees the garden hotline and gardening classes, heard a lot from people who built raised beds, but often filled them with compost. Mater doesn’t recommend planting directly on compost.

“It doesn’t have the mineral content that plants need to build strong cell walls,” she explained. “So the plants tend to get really, really overgrown and leggy and then sort of fall over.”

Another common mistake: overbuying and overplanting seeds.

“People didn’t realize that if you buy a packet of lettuce seeds it’s got thousands of seeds in it. And, you know they would buy five packets … it would take me years to use one packet of lettuce seeds. “

If that’s you, Matter says, most seeds are viable for a few years.

At the Tilth greenhouse in Rainier Beach, rows of tiny leaves poke out of the plant cell packs. Matter waters them and talks about how to get the garden ready. First plant what you want to eat. Also, check the soil. To demonstrate, she grabs a handful of soil and gives it a good squeeze.

“It makes kind of a ball, but it’s loose,” Matter said. “So that’s good, good loose soil, but it’s damp.”

Initially, pandemic restrictions forced Tilth Alliance to change its outreach, moving to online workshops. That proved to be more convenient for a lot of people who didn’t want to drive.

Now, even though pandemic restrictions are loosened, gardening is still going strong. Supply chain issues and inflation are motivating people.

Others, like Sukhie Patel, found all kinds of benefits they want to hang on to. Patel grew up gardening but returned to it during the pandemic. She says it’s a source of inspiration, and a connective tissue with her friends and neighbors.

“It’s common for people to be like, 'Oh, I have cuttings, does anyone want them?' Or Facebook where people are seed saving or sharing seeds, or offering tips on where they’re getting compost.”

Turns out gardening is also meditative. For Tumwater gardener Joy Silas, one of the biggest thrills was seeing her two young daughters get into it, helping her water.

“It got us out the house, not in front of the screen,” she said. “And it gives you a mental break from the blue screen.”

Silas says she gets compliments from strangers, and even though she still feels a novice, they ask her for advice.