Gardening is good for your sanity and your sustenance

Communication senior Ezra Remer stands in front of his coffee, bay leaf, purple sugar apple, and mango trees at the South Miami home he rents. Photo courtesy of Ezra Remer
By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Communication senior Ezra Remer stands in front of his coffee, bay leaf, purple sugar apple, and mango trees at the South Miami home he rents. Photo courtesy of Ezra Remer

Gardening is good for your sanity and your sustenance

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
University students and faculty members champion gardening as a great way to break up the quarantine routine, and they offer some tips on how to start your own garden.

At the start of the semester, University of Miami senior Ezra Remer was unsure how many of the plants he cultivates in his South Miami yard would survive with his jam-packed schedule.

Now that the coronavirus outbreak has forced him to stay home, Remer said the hour he spends each day in his garden—weeding and watering his herbs, vegetables, and trees—is a welcome break. 

“A lot of students are feeling a sense of doom and gloom, and we get so wrapped up in the news that we want to stay inside. But the fact of the matter is that one of the healthier things you can do is to go outside to get some fresh air and a little vitamin D,” said Remer, a Stamps Scholar and documentary film major in the School of Communication. “It helps my mental health tremendously.”

With health and government officials urging everyone to stay home to stem the spread of COVID-19, and beaches and parks closed, there is not much of an outlet to explore the outdoors.

But several students and staff and faculty members say home gardening is one way to get some fresh air while still in isolation.

“For me, it’s always been the case that I'm in a better place mentally when I come in from the garden than when I went out,” said Terri Hood, senior lecturer and assistant director for the undergraduate ecosystem science and policy program, as well as a lifetime gardener. Hood also started the Sustainability Garden in the John C. Gifford Arboretum last spring.

Her colleague, senior lecturer Gina Maranto, who directs the undergraduate Ecosystem Science and Policy Program, agrees. Maranto started gardening with her grandmother in Texas as a child and has barely stopped since.

“In gardens, you are reconnecting with the Earth in a way that is profound and important for yourself, and for the species,” said Maranto. “And, for people who have never known the natural season of a plant, it’s pretty amazing to put something in the ground and see it grow. The best part is that you then get to eat what you sow. Food from the garden tastes 10 times better than anything you can buy; so, it’s a win all around.” 

And, our seasoned gardeners have a few tips for those who hope to cultivate something while in quarantine.

Although many of these green thumbs say spring is not the most optimal vegetable planting time (typical planting season is October through March), there is still plenty that will grow in South Florida’s tropical climate.

There are many things you can buy at the store and then put right in the ground, Hood said.

Fruits and Vegetables

One of the easiest things to grow are beans, according to Hood and Maranto.

Genesis Cosme, a senior, agrees. Cosme, a public relations major with a minor in ecosystem science and policy, started growing her own food at home after taking a course—about ecosystems science and global food policy—with Richard Weisskoff, an international studies professor who also inspired Remer to start his garden. Cosme is taking a second course with Weisskoff this semester and is documenting the progress with her vegetables at home for class.  While Maranto is about to plant lima beans, Cosme is nurturing a pigeon pea plant she transplanted from the class garden. 

Hood suggests that parents with young children who are interested in gardening can simply go into the dry-bean aisle at a grocery store and buy a bean soup package with a large variety of legumes. Soak the beans overnight, and then plant them to see which work best. Cosme said she often puts dry beans inside a wet paper towel, places the paper towel in a plastic zipper bag, and then puts it near some sunlight. After a few days, you can already see the seedling emerging. Transplant it into a pot or the ground, she added.

Other hearty vegetables and fruit that will probably grow are:

  • peppers (bell, habanero, hot, red, etc.)
  • okra
  • kale
  • root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, boniatos, yucca and malanga (These can also be bought at the grocery store, started in water, and planted in the ground, Hood pointed out.)
  • celery (Cosme starts by putting the root in water until it sprouts.)
  • spring onions or scallions (Cosme is regrowing some from the grocery store.)
  • pineapples (Just cut off the top, pack the dirt around it firmly, and stick it in the ground. It may not always work. And, “it takes two years to produce a new fruit, but it is very satisfying when it arrives,” Maranto said.)
  • Key limes (“This is one type of citrus where you can plant the seeds, and the new plant will be equal in quality and taste to the parent,” Hood said.)
  • papaya

Trees/Plants

May is a great time for planting trees in South Florida, because it is the start of the rainy season. So, you don’t have to water them as much, Hood said. She suggested tropical fruit trees like mangoes, star fruit (carambola), or avocadoes.

In terms of plants, Remer and Hood said these grow well:

  • bay leaf
  • hearty herbs like Thai basil and garlic chives, as well as sage and rosemary (ideally for summer, you want these in a semi-shaded area, Maranto said.)

Flowers

Some flowers are especially hearty during the hot Florida summers and attract wildlife, like bees and butterflies, Hood said. These include:

  • passion fruit vines (These can be bought at local nurseries.)
  • tropical milkweed (While these are great for butterflies, you will likely have to order seeds online or buy plants at a nursery.)
  • tropical sage (A pretty, red flower that draws pollinators.)
  • Ruellia (This is a purple flower that attracts Skipper butterflies.)
  • native lantana (This is a flowering plant.)
  • Locust berry (This also is a flowering plant, native to South Florida and the Keys.)

Caring for your garden

This time of year is one of the driest in Miami, so if you put in new plants, be careful to water them often, Hood noted. The best type to plant now are subtropicals, “that can take our warmth and muggy summers,” she added.

In addition, the best time for watering the garden may be mid-morning, once the morning dew has evaporated, Maranto suggested. Try not to water things late in the day, she cautioned. If you do, be sure to direct the flow of water to the base of the plants and avoid getting the leaves wet. The goal is not to let plants go into the cooler evening hours with wet leaves, as they will be more prone to things like mold and mildew, Maranto said.

How do we fertilize? Our gardeners recommended using old coffee grounds in the soil.

“Coffee grounds are magical,” Hood said. “They have just the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen to be able to break down into nutrients that plants can use.”

If you are willing to create your own compost, Cosme, Remer, and Maranto save all the fruit and vegetable scraps and throw them into a bin that helps to fertilize the soil a few months later. Remer even bought his own compost tumbler to make great fertilizer, while Cosme uses an old trash can with holes punched into it. Hood shared that she often digs a hole in the garden near existing or new plantings, puts fresh fruit and vegetable peels in it, then covers it up with soil.

Regardless of whether you want to plant trees, or a simple herb garden, Cosme believes the process of gardening is rewarding and useful. She has even gotten her parents to join her in composting, even though they used to think it was unseemly. Now, the family is planning a raised-bed garden, so that they will not have to rely on grocery stores for vegetables.

“In times like this, the idea of being self-sufficient is very empowering,” Cosme remarked. 

She also likes the fact that gardening is so accessible.

“There’s no such thing as a black thumb,” she said. “Anyone is capable of starting a garden on their own, as long as it’s something you really want to try.”