Spring has arrived: the weather is warming and blossoms are brightening Moab neighborhoods, even as the national mood is anxious and grim in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic. Gardening is one way to embrace the season while maintaining social distance, getting some fresh air, and potentially creating a source of food that doesn’t rely on a distant supply chain.
“There’s a lot of anxieties and worries right now, and maybe people want to give themselves a mental break,” said Emily Roberson, the outreach and development coordinator for the Youth Garden Project (YGP), a local nonprofit that provides agricultural education to Moab youth and the community.
“That’s a totally valid reason to garden and we want to support people in that,” she said.
Kara Dohrenwend is the owner of Wild Landscapes, a local Moab nursery. She reported that the current crisis seems to have piqued people’s interest in gardening—the nursery is busier than usual this time of year.
“We are definitely seeing more first-time gardeners and a lot of people who are expanding existing gardens,” she said.
To keep up with the high demand, Dohrenwend said the nursery has increased its seed ordering schedule to once a week and ordered extra plants and drip irrigation parts.
Rhonda Gotway Clyde is one of the owners of Easy Bee Farm, which offers “Community Supported Agriculture” (CSA) shares. For a seasonal fee, shareholders receive a weekly harvest of a variety of seasonal vegetables grown in the Moab Valley at Easy Bee Farm. The farm also supplies Moonflower Market. Clyde said the farm is on track with previous years for sign-ups for CSA shares.
“We’re going to have a more productive year than we’ve ever had,” she added, noting that Easy Bee Farm is leasing an extra quarter acre of land for growing vegetables this year.
Start your own
Both Dohrenwend and Clyde encourage people to give gardening a try. A successful garden can involve a lot of planning, including identifying areas of sun and shade, designing an irrigation system, and building up soil. However, Clyde encourages new gardeners to “just do it,” at whatever level they can, even if that means just a few containers.
“Start small, start close to your door, and then work your way out from there,” she advised.
Dohrenwend said there is still plenty of time to grow vegetables this year. While it may be too late in the year to start spinach, lettuce, or peas, she said, it’s a good time to start cool-season crops like kale, arugula, chard, beets and carrots from seeds or starts.
For warm weather plants like tomatoes and peppers, now is about the latest time to start them from seed for them to flourish and produce. Starts will also be available at Wildland Scapes and at the Youth Garden Project plant sale, which will take place from April 20 to May 3. Starts should be protected from frost and planted in the ground well after the danger of frost is over.
“A critical thing to remember as it warms up is that April 18th is the average frost-free date, roughly, for Moab,” said Dohrenwend. “This means it likely will freeze or frost before then and can do so after.”
Local farms adapt
Easy Bee Farm, Wildland Scapes, and the Youth Garden Project are each planning and adapting in their own way to the pandemic and the related restrictions and recommendations.
While the Wildland Scapes nursery remains open, shoppers must remain six feet from each other, and employees are practicing heightened sanitation practices similar to other businesses—frequent hand-washing and disinfecting of surfaces.
Clyde said the season at Easy Bee began with a hitch when their crop manager got a cold and had to self-quarantine for two weeks. Now the manager is back and supervising small crews. Clyde says workers divide up stations and tools and disinfect common surfaces with a bleach solution.
“Fortunately, it’s easy to social distance on a farm,” she said. “You can stay six hundred feet away from each other if you want to!”
The hygiene practices are also not a stretch for Easy Bee Farm workers.
“We’ve always run a really tight, clean ship around here. I’m kind of neurotic like that,” said Clyde.
The Youth Garden Project may have had to be the most flexible during the pandemic, as their mission is not only to grow food but to engage with and educate the community.
“Right now we have had to put many of our programs on hold,” said Roberson. Normally, YGP would be starting their garden classroom and after school programs this time of year, but those activities are canceled. The organization also had to cancel their spring break camp. They are still offering their “Ag in your Area” (“Ag” is short for “agriculture”) class to high schoolers, through online learning.
YGP still plans to hold its annual plant sale, where community members can buy starts of tomatoes, peppers, and other late spring and summer crops. This year, the organization is creating a way people can order online, and then either pick up their items from the farm or have them delivered.
The Grand County COVID-19 Task Force has asked YGP to be a leader in local food security preparation, as the coronavirus pandemic disrupts supply chains across the globe.
Roberson has scheduled a meeting with other farmers, including Easy Bee, to discuss plans and concerns. Roberson said she has three main objectives in mind. The first is to plan how the community will come together to ensure the availability of fresh food in the event of a supply chain disruption.
Another topic of discussion will be how to engage and direct community members’ desire to contribute and be productive in a time of uncertainty.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about growing your own food and using that as a way to be more resilient in the face of disaster,” Roberson said.
Roberson’s third objective is to work out the local distribution of locally grown food—networking and planning with local businesses and organizations, and working together rather than each team planning solutions independently.
Roberson said she doesn’t expect supply chains to be disrupted, but that it’s better to be prepared for what may never happen.
“You can’t just plant a seed and then all of a sudden you have food the next day,” she said. “You have to plan ahead.”
Whether gardening is a conscious plan for food security or a relaxing escape from the anxiety of current events, it’s a worthy pastime, said Clyde.
“People should grow their own [gardens]. There’s so much joy in it,” said Clyde. “Even if things go back to normal—it really does teach you something to take care of plants.”