Nancy Reeves preps soil in a butterfly garden at her home in Lowndes County's New Hope community Thursday. Before long, colorful flowers that attract pollinators will provide a bright oasis in Reeves' yard. Spring's arrival and more hours at home create a prime opportunity to start the garden we never got around to. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
April 4, 2020 6:14:13 PM
Thursday's sun shone high and bright on 7-year-old Lucy Ann Richardson and big brother Craig, 14, as they helped their mom with gardening at home in Caledonia. Because of the novel coronavirus, Victoria and Chad Richardson's raised vegetable beds are about two to three weeks ahead of schedule than they'd normally be this time of year.
Chad, in the construction industry, continues working, but Victoria, a culinary arts teacher with the Lowndes County School District Career Technology Center, has been home with the children ever since a week-long spring break became a long sequester. Gardening has been a beneficiary.
Those vegetables you always meant to try your hand at? The vibrant flowers you envisioned in the yard but never got around to planting? This is it.
Bright spots may be few and far between during shelter-in-place status, but Richardson and others like her think getting our hands dirty is a productive way to put unexpected days at home to good purpose. In spite of world events, spring has arrived and the earth is ready to produce.
"With the call to practice social distancing and staying home away from group gatherings, what better time than now to get outside, breathe the fresh air and start a vegetable or flower garden?" said Mississippi State University Extension Service Agent Reid Nevins.
Co-ops and garden centers should have a variety of vegetable seedlings such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, corn and other vegetables -- as well as flowers -- to choose from, Nevins said.
"But it's also still not too late to start many vegetables from seeds," he noted. "Starting seeds is, of course, cheaper than purchasing seedlings, but it's also a great way to introduce young people to gardening by planting the seeds and watching them emerge and grow with a little tender, loving care."
The prospect needn't be daunting or huge.
"Not everything has to come from the grocery store, and you don't have to have a lot of space," said Victoria Richardson. "After all, one or two tomato plants are pretty much enough for a family."
The Richardsons began with three raised beds about 17 years ago; now they have 19. Most of the beds are 4-by-10-feet, built of pressure-treated lumber. Chad and Victoria -- and their two young helpers -- grow much of what they eat and share the rest with family and neighbors. Victoria does a lot of canning.
"Start small. Raised beds are the easiest way to go because you can keep everything contained. You can walk all the way around the bed, pick from every side," she said. "Begin with one bed, maybe two, and when you get comfortable with that, add another bed and then you can add more variety in what you grow."
Cucumbers are easy to grow from seeds, she continued. "And squash and zucchini come up pretty quick from seeds. We also grow radishes from seeds and carrots, although they're a little more cantankerous and take a while to germinate."
For peppers, tomatoes, egg plants and broccoli, Richardson usually starts with plants from a garden center.
"Composting has been amazing," she remarked. Compost piles convert waste including grass clippings, tree leaves, vegetable food scraps, newspaper and cardboard into a soil-enriching boost for the garden. The practice turned what was "terrible dirt" the Richardsons began with into bounty-producing fuel.
One big benefit of getting back to the earth has been the effect on Craig and Lucy Ann, their mother said.
"One of the greatest things I've seen come out of this is that my children love vegetables. They love almost everything that comes out of the garden."
In the New Hope community Thursday, Nancy Reeves prepped the soil for a butterfly garden. After taking the Extension Service's Master Gardeners course in spring 2017, she was inspired by the butterfly garden the group maintains at the Columbus Riverwalk. She likes rolling out the welcome mat to graceful pollinators on a smaller scale in her own yard as well. First-time gardeners can create their own in a limited space.
"Select a sunny spot. Butterflies love the heat," Reeves advised from experience. "Choose plants or seeds that are going to produce a colorful and pleasing-to-the-eye garden." Zinnia, lantana, salvia, milkweed, Mexican sunflowers, Turk's cap, fennel and dill weed are among Reeves' choices.
Butterflies need structure to lay their eggs on, she pointed out. Publications online can help with suggestions.
"The plants they choose to nectar from are not necessarily the ones they'll choose to lay their eggs on," said the enthusiast. It can help to "add a bit of structure," even an old branch, for butterflies to light on, or to cocoon on, she said. And during the dry, hot summer, add a small pan of water.
"Something to provide moisture for them," she urged, "because they get thirsty, too."
Plenty of help
Whether for vegetables, flowers or butterflies, the MSU Extension Service puts a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, Nevins said.
"To look up the most popular gardening publications on your phone or computer, go to extension.msstate.edu and type in what you want information on in the search bar," he advised.
One of the most popular publications in spring is the Mississippi Garden Tabloid, Publication 1091, the agent noted.
"It discusses proper planting dates for vegetables, fertilizing, insect and weed control and many, many more topics to help you with producing the best garden you have ever had."
For guidance on butterfly gardens, search for "Butterfly Plants and Mississippi Butterflies," Publication 151661.
Then, go outdoors.
Reeves said, "I firmly believe that being outside helps with mental health, so in this time when we're relegated to staying on our own little square of land, being inside all day is just not healthy. We've got this time now, and there's a need for us to be out there. It gets us outside of our box."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.