Horticulturalist Peggy Ann Montgomery hasn’t had a vegetable garden since her children were little—about 20 years ago.
But as the pandemic began to impact food stock in grocery stores and markets, the Wilmington resident decided to “dip her toe in the water” by growing her own produce again—and she’s not the only one.
At Hockessin’s Gateway Garden Center, manager Rich Hanrahan says more people are coming in to learn how to create their own gardens. So many, in fact, that’s it’s been hard for his nursery to keep supplies in stock, from plants to seeds to soil.
But for those of us who aren’t horticulturists—or even have a green thumb—the thought of planting a garden or even potted herbs can be intimidating. To help you get started, we collected tips and tricks from other locals who have sprouted success. So what are you waiting for? Get growing.
When choosing which herbs and plants to grow, it’s important to consider what’s in season and how much space you have.
Some plants grow fairly self-contained, while others need space to trellis their vines.
Throughout July, Delaware’s climate is conducive to growing produce like arugula, basil, cilantro, chili peppers, lettuce, parsley, peppers, tomatoes and watercress, according to seasonalfoodguide.org.
While you can start with either transplants or seeds of different produce and herbs, Montgomery recommends a mixture of both, as having some transplants will make it feel like things have already begun to sprout.
As for how long it could be before your first harvest, that depends on the plant, says Marcia Stephenson, director of advancement at the Delaware Center for Horticulture.
“Germination rates for each vegetable vary by type and of course the weather,” she says.
Generally, most seeds germinate between seven to 10 days. Certain vegetables are exceptions, like carrots and celery, which take longer, 14-20 days and 28 to 40 respectively, she says. Most vegetables like beans, lettuce and beets can be eaten in about 70 days. Peppers, carrots and potatoes about 120 days.
Tomatoes are a tough one, she says, as they take the most time and need really warm or hot weather to produce.
Hanrahan says seeds for summer crops like tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers are big sellers.
Mike Dodson, a Wilmington-based interior designer, loves to grow parsley and peppers on his balcony. He even gives clients fresh parsley to keep in their kitchen and use in their everyday cooking.
“I love plants that have real, established health benefits,” he says.
While mint is a must-have for summer dishes and mocktails, Stephenson cautions that it must grow in its own container. She learned the herb is invasive when it spread roots across her own raised-bed garden, wreaking havoc on neighboring plants.
The size of your garden depends on how much space you have to grow, plus sunlight, shade and shelter.
Stephenson built a large raised bed, 6-by-10 foot, in her Wilmington backyard. In hindsight, she says, she should have installed multiple beds so she could separate plants and walk between them.
“It’s better to have narrow beds that you can easily access from either side without having to step into the bed. So ideally a 3- or 4-foot width by a 10-foot length would have been smarter,” she says.
Dodson has a small balcony and created a container garden to grow the herbs and vegetables he wanted without taking up too much space. He likes that people can still enjoy a cocktail on the balcony without the plants taking over.
Montgomery tilled the soil in her backyard from what used to be native and ornamental plants for the vegetable garden. While she doesn’t suggest this if you can avoid it (it’s time-consuming), she says it’s important to start with new, fresh soil. Her preference is a combination of manure and compost. (“It’s dirt cheap,” she jokes.) Nurseries like Gateway can help you with any specific wants or needs, Hanrahan says.
As for fertilization, Stephenson says skip it and “don’t complicate it.”
It’s also important to ensure your herbs and plants get six to eight hours of sunlight a day and an inch of water a week. Balcony plants constantly get sun from one side daily, so rotating the plants regularly helps. “There’s nothing worse than roasting in the sun,” Dodson says.
Montgomery says her best advice is to bury fears of having a black thumb and just go for it. So grab a shovel, some gloves and a watering can, and watch the fruits of your labor ripen.
Published as “Get Growing” in the July 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.