Growing a green thumb: ‘Having a purpose’ during the COVID-19 pandemic

Starting a garden while stuck at home could provide a space for relief in a time of higher anxiety. Here’s how to do it.


Naomi Hofferber, Senior Reporter

For those stuck in the house during the COVID-19 pandemic, gaining a green thumb and starting a garden can look more and more appealing.

“It’s having something to take care of, especially in college when you’re on your own,” Mekiah Hillgren, a freshman with the University of Iowa Gardeners, said. “I like having a place where I can go and take care of something that is separate from myself. It also takes your mind off of things, when you immerse yourself in that care of other things.”

Hillgren’s family has had a garden for the past four or five years, she said, and she herself has been gardening at the UI since August.

“Especially now, getting outside while not going too far outside is very beneficial,” she said. “Like, especially if it’s warm outside, but you’re so down that you don’t feel like going out. Having a purpose and something to do every day to tend, I think would really help people.”

Since coming home from the UI to West Des Moines, Hillgren has been tending starter plants indoors at home under a lightbulb, as it’s too cold to plant yet. She’s also been tending the plants she’s kept in her dorm. As soon as Mother Nature is ready, she said, she’ll be planting them outside.

For starter plants, Hillgren recommends spinach, peppers, carrots, or herbs, as they’re typically easier to grow.

In addition to outdoor, in the ground gardening, container gardening —  gardening in a unit outside of the ground — can provide a smaller scale operation that may be more accessible for newer gardeners.

Kerrie Buettner, the owner of local flower shop Every Bloomin’ Thing, has been a hobby gardener for the past 15 years, and a professional container gardener for four.

“What I think that people really like about gardening is the gratification of growing something,” Buettner said. “It’s almost very therapeutic and it’s very healthy to watch something grow and evolve, and when you garden, you get that all in one season.”

Buettner focuses more on container gardening, rather than vegetable gardens, taking a more artistic approach to planting. One of her focuses within container planting is edible floral arrangements; mixing bright flowers with herbs, fruits, or vegetables, for something that is aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.

“I’ve always really liked the idea of mixing flowers, and plants and vegetables and fruits. I mean, because they’re all so beautiful, and the colors really play off each other,” she said. “I mean, things don’t just grow in nature without propagating (with other) things. Nature is messy, it likes to have weeds grow next to food bearing plants in the wild. Everything kind of grows together and lives together.”

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Buettner recommends container gardening for new gardeners, as it’s on a smaller scale and more manageable, as growers have more control over the soil, less weeds tend to pop up in them, and they are easier physically to tend to.

“I also feel like if there’s one thing we’re all kind of learning is we maybe want to be a little bit more self-sufficient than we were before,” she said. “Whether it’s starting with a pot of herbs in your kitchen window that you can cut and cook with, to having a couple pots out on your patio that you can maybe grow a pepper and some tomatoes in. Just starting on a small scale that you can handle, and seeing how you like it.”

Phil Ricks, the general manager of Beautiful Land Products, broke down the steps for new gardeners ready to start growing.

First, Ricks said, growers should identify where they’re going to get their plants to grow.

“There’s a whole number of different places to get baby starter plants,” he said. “Starting from seed is just a little bit more tricky. If you’re going to be starting from seeds this year, it’s been a process to try and find seeds because there’s been a run on seeds for basically every manufacturer of them.”

Ricks recommends growers look on the Iowa City Farmers Market page to find vendors with plants that they would typically sell at the market, as they would still have plants available despite the market being closed until June. Most plants, Ricks said, typically should be in the ground by May 15.

Next, growers should find a location with at least six hours of sunlight, according to Ricks.

“If you live in a shady yard, or something like that, then you’ll probably want to check with the city to see if you can get one of the garden plots,” he said. “There are several different community garden plots in Iowa City.”

Iowa City has four different community garden plots throughout the city, with the cost of renting starting at $10 for a mini plot.

Growers should also decide whether they want to build a raised bed for their garden, or just garden directly in the ground, and find the right soil for your garden, according to Ricks. While greenhouse soil might work well for container plants, Ricks said, he recommends using compost or other organic matter for two thirds of the soil, and using the horticulture soil for the remainder of it, so as not to have an overload of nutrients in the soil. Finally, he said, the garden should have easy access to water.

Ricks said gardening provides an opportunity to get out and do something, without risking the exposure of going to a public place such as a grocery store.

“For me a huge benefit is the mental health aspect of it,” he said. “I get a significant amount of joy just from hanging out with and playing with plants and being out in the sun, getting fresh air and exercise and all those sorts of good things that come with it. I think another thing is that it provides us an opportunity to reconnect with the natural world and do so in a way that provides us with sustenance and nutrition.”