Gardening in Lockdown: How to have a productive plot during Covid-19

If there has anything that we have learned from the current crisis, it is that we as a collective group can accomplish amazing things. Although we are living in uncertain and frightening times, we have been fortunate to see some of the best of humanity. This past week Captain (now Colonel!) Tom has raised over £32 million for the NHS, TV adverts and programmes are full of inspiring messages of collaborative hope, and essential workers are bravely continuing to keep our society moving by tirelessly working on the front lines.

The best thing that we can do in these circumstances is to fully cooperate: we need to stay home, follow the guidelines, and stay focused on keeping ourselves and our communities safe from this atrocious virus.

The shortest perusal of the internet will show that people are getting pretty creative during the quarantine. As most business are closed or only selling essential items, most are having to make do or invent new ways of carrying on with everyday routines. This is especially true for gardening!

As most of our outside time is limited to our back gardens, this is definitely the right time to flex your green fingers and soak up some vital sunshine. Now more than ever, it is important to keep yourself mentally and physically healthy – gardening is just one great way to do this! Fortunately, allotments have been exempt from lockdown by the UK government. According to the government and England Police, attending an allotment is a valid excuse to leave your home (see the link here). However, as many garden centres are closed and the surge in home deliveries means longer wait times, a little creativity can go a long way to supply your veg plot with everything you will need to make it productive.

In this post, I’m going to present a few different ideas to keep your garden afloat.

Running low on compost: This seems to be one of the biggest problems, especially because it can be a hassle getting large bags of compost delivered to your front door. There are a few easy solutions which can stretch your dwindling supply or to help quickly make your own.

The first thing I would recommend is to stop using straight compost for seed sowing if you’re running low and instead mix it with something else to keep the supply going. My recommendation would be to use plain top soil with something like vermiculite or perlite to beef up your compost – it’s relatively light and compact so easy to deliver – and a little goes a long way. I make a mixture that is even parts top soil and compost with a handful of vermiculite.

Mix this all together is a bucket or spare seed tray and then scoop it into individual pots.

If you’re in the precarious position where you have absolutely no compost or seed starting mix, then it’s time to start getting a bit more creative.

Take kitchen scraps – vegetable peels, finely crushed egg shells, coffee grinds, and strips of newspaper or non printed paper towels work perfectly. Chop this all up together so you have a fairly fine mixture without any large lumps. Ideally, use something that has rotted down or decayed a bit, but it’s fine if it hasn’t. To speed up the process, make a large batch of this and put it in something like a bucket or spare bin, add some water and a sprinkling of soil, and cover. You can cover it with a plastic bag or bin bag to really help keep the heat and moisture inside. Now place it in a warm sunny spot, occasionally giving it a shake without removing the cover. After a week or two you will have something that starts to look and smell a bit funky – it may not look like well-rotted, ready-to-use compost but it’s something!

When you’re ready to start planting or sowing seeds, throw this mixture in with equal parts top soil – if you don’t have any bags of sieved top soil, just dig up a patch from your back garden, remove any weeds/grasses, and try to get it to a breadcrumb consistency as much as possible. Then use this to sow seeds or pot up veg. It’s not perfect, but it will supply some nutrients and help to get things going if you’re really in a bind.

If you are able to leave your home, then one of the best things to do is look on social media – Facebook marketplace or a neighbourhood group is a good spot for this! There are often people selling compost/top soil or even some that are just trying to get rid of theirs for free. Just ensure before you do anything like this that the person is a reputable seller and that you can arrange a collection or delivery safely while complying with all current lockdown rules! It’s not worth getting this disease or risking spreading it to others for a bit of soil.

We recently acquired lots of well-rotted horse manure while still complying with all the current rules – as I have asthma, this is especially important for me! A local woman who owns horses and a paddock advertised free manure on my local neighbourhood Facebook page. In order to obey all restrictions, she ensured that the gate to the paddock was open, so we were able to drive straight on in our car without touching anything. The manure pile was several metres away from everything and we brought our own buckets, bags, and tools to load it up. Doing it this way ensured that we had no direct contact with each other but were still able to collect manure. We were able to get 45 bags (!) each about 12-15 kg for FREE! She is eager to get rid of the stuff, so we’ve shared this with other plot holders and friends who have since collected some themselves. This was a great way to still get what you needed, but without risking you, your loved ones, or strangers.

We got about 700 kg of well-rotted horse manure for FREE! We just shovelled it ourselves into old soil and feed bags we had sitting in the shed.

Planters and Pots: We are fortunate in that we have loads – and I mean, LOADS – of spare plastic plant pots and seed trays from years of buying plants and plugs from nurseries. Apart from a couple of propagator trays, we have never had to buy small pots or seed trays – instead, we wash and store all of the pots we have collected over the years so they can be reused. I really hate the amount of plastic we use and I am so conscious of how much destruction single-use plastic is causing to the natural world. As I know that it is really difficult to go completely plastic free, I try to just reuse as much as I can rather than buying even more plastic. One way to ensure that you do not have to buy more plastic items – and thus necessitate their constant production – is to spend a day in the autumn washing, drying, and properly storing any plastic pots, containers, or trays you may have. Treat it like a rare commodity.

For those who do not have loads in their shed like we do, there are many other ways that you can make pots from items in your house by reusing things in your recycling bin.

Toilet Roll Tubes: If there’s anything that we should all have in abundance right now, it’s toilet roll! Over the past year, I have been meticulously saving every empty cardboard tube and storing it for future use. It may make me look like a crazy person when I’m swiping used toilet tubes, but it is one of the most useful things you can do! If you don’t have any spare empty tubes right now, just go to that unopened 24 pack of toilet paper you have stored in the garage (Costco shoppers, I’m looking at you!) and gently pry the cardboard from the inside of the roll. Spoiler alert: you don’t actually need the tube to still use the toilet paper! It will still hold it’s shape and be able to sit on a roll dispenser without the tube in the middle.

Plastic tubs, cartons, and bottles: Another thing that I also collect over the year are 2 litre plastic bottles. My husband is a compulsive soda drinker, so these are always in supply in my house! I usually save these and use them to put on the top of bamboo canes when I have to drape netting or insect mesh over a bed (see below). I also use them in my brassica bed when protecting crops from cabbage root fly by making them into a cuff or collar which surrounds the base and roots of the plant. PVC pipe also works well for this, but I find reused plastic bottles works just as well.

I put them on the top of bamboo canes to keep the nets from breaking on the ends of the bamboo and to keep the sticks from slipping through the nets. This keeps the nets off the plants, ensuring their growth is not restricted and that birds can’t pick at the delicious veg or fruit beneath. If you want it slightly more attractive, do the opposite of what I did and remove the plastic labels first – lesson learned!

You can also use plastic bottles as pots! Remove the outside label and, using a pair of scissors or a sharp knife, carefully cut the bottle in half crosswise to make two pots. For the bottom portion of the bottle, make several holes in the bottom to allow for drainage. For the top portion of the bottle, remove the cap for drainage.

Feel free to rummage around in your recycling bin for other potential pots. Empty margarine tubs, plastic milk jugs, yogurt pots, empty tissue boxes, and egg cartons also make great containers for growing seeds. Anything that is made from cardboard can go straight in the ground with the seedling once it’s time to plant out: just ensure it is very wet before you stick it in the ground – this helps ensure it will rot away and not impede the plant’s growth. One of the best things about an empty margarine or butter tub is that you can use the lid as a water tray! Simply clean the tub, let dry completely, poke a few holes in the bottom, fill with soil and seed, and set it on the lid to catch excess water.

Even household items can be used as pots. For example, if you’re throwing out an old dresser simply remove the drawers, drill a few holes in the bottom, throw a bit of outdoor paint on it, and you have a new planter. If you have some old broken wash buckets, plastic or wooden bathroom bins, or storage boxes you’re no longer using, just punch a few holes in those and you can also use them to hold plants. Don’t be afraid to get creative! Almost anything can serve as a seed tray or plant pot if you just use a bit of imagination.

Seeds and Plants: Many seed merchants and nurseries are currently inundated with orders, especially since so many people have decided to take up gardening during lockdown. While this is a wonderful thing for our green spaces, it is making it a bit difficult to get anything quickly. Most online seed suppliers have a 3-4 week wait for deliveries and nurseries or garden centres, if they are open, are only able to deliver over a certain amount of money to make it viable. There are a few ways around this if you can’t afford to wait at the moment.

One option would be to go on Ebay, Gumtree, or other similar websites to see if local sellers have any seeds available that they can get to you in a shorter amount of time. Neighbourhood groups on certain social media sites like Facebook are starting to set up plant/seed swaps. Plan ahead with your neighbours to collect or share excess seeds or seedlings to ensure no person-to-person contact. For example, have them leave the items in a secure place and you can then collect it at your leisure. I would definitely recommend wearing a mask and gloves when handling anything and sanitising it with wipes before you use it with your bare hands. Be sure to wash your hands very well afterwards.

Nurseries and garden centres in my area are currently setting up deliver systems to use their seasonal goods. Now is a great time to help support these local businesses who are being economically impacted by the current situation. Most of these have set up delivery systems – understandably, click and collect is not allowed for health and safety reasons – but they usually have a high minimum spend amount to make it worthwhile for them. One local nursery in my area, for example, has a £50 minimum spend to deliver within 5 miles. Don’t be put off by this, however. What I would recommend is to ask neighbours, friends, and fellow gardeners if they would like to order something with you. Have one person in the group place the order and put down their contact details for the delivery address. The other people in the ground can then go and collect it from the front of your house in a rotation system to keep everyone physically distanced. Most nursery or garden centres have Facebook pages now, so if you’re having trouble finding someone to join your order but don’t want to buy £50 worth of plants, get in touch with other people on their page and see if you can join their order.

Just because we are living in unusual times doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to garden, grow, and produce lovely things outdoors. The current restrictions just mean that you have to be a little more creative at times, especially since growing your own food has never been more important than ever! With the borders closed to the seasonal immigrant workforce, British growers are having difficulty finding workers to help pick crops. A substantial amount of produce is likely to rot and go to waste because there simply aren’t enough people to help (or willing to help) feed the nation. If you are currently furloughed or unemployed and looking for work, I would highly recommend you visit the site, Pick for Britain. It is a government and agricultural partnership that is trying to address the current job and produce situations by allowing those who are currently unemployed to be in direct contact with growers who desperately need the labour. Please think about joining this or suggest to someone who could benefit from this scheme!

Just remember readers, we can get through this – but we have to do it together.

Keep calm and carry on growing.

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