The onslaught of the coronavirus may have forced the Berkshire Botanical Garden to close its grounds to the public this May, but it hasn’t diminished our commitment to sharing and teaching. Instead, the Garden’s educators are reaching out through new media. Consider, for example, the virtual helping hand that Director of Horticulture Dorthe Hviid is extending to first-time vegetable gardeners this spring.
Dorthe has been growing her own food since her childhood in Denmark and, among her many responsibilities at BBG, she has overseen the kitchen and herb gardens for the 28 years of her tenure as Director of Horticulture. Despite her experience and expertise, Dorthe hasn’t lost her sympathy for those just starting out as gardeners. This is an especially common situation this spring; many people are using the enforced leisure of sequestration to start growing their own food for the first time. Dorthe wants to make sure that these novices have a successful introduction to her craft. To help them get off on the right foot, she has produced a series of four, 5-minute videos about the process of starting a vegetable garden, which she is sharing on Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Instagram and Facebook accounts every Wednesday, as well as on their YouTube and virtual learning page, BerkshireBotanical.org/virtual-learning. These are available to the Garden’s members, of course, but also to any member of the public who cares to log on.
The first video in this series is about choosing a suitable site for the vegetable garden and selecting and ordering seeds. The second is about preparing the soil for planting, whether you choose to grow in a raised bed or in the open ground. Third comes an introduction to starting plants from seed, and video number four details how to transplant seedlings into the garden.
I joined Dorthe recently by phone and asked her to share with me some of the information I might find in her videos. I found her quite eloquent on the subject of kitchen gardening, but also realistic. Among the benefits a gardener might derive from this activity is not only the actual vegetables one might harvest, but also improved physical health, from the time spent outdoors in the fresh air and from the stress relief to be had from this active form of self-expression. It’s good for a person’s morale, she agreed, to take at least some control over their food supply.
However, Dorthe also cautioned the new gardener to be realistic about their commitment of time and energy. Better to cultivate a small plot successfully, she pointed out, than to dig up and plant a big area only to have it be overrun by weeds. Having made this mistake myself in my beginning years as a vegetable gardener, I can testify to the wisdom of her advice; during my first, overly ambitious attempt at vegetable gardening, I harvested little besides frustration. Don’t disdain the small plot, Dorthe urged. A bed just four feet long and four feet wide is enough, she points out, to grow a couple of tomatoes, or a couple of peppers, and maybe some lettuces.
Not just any spot will do, either. To be successful, a vegetable garden needs “full sun” — that is, direct, unfiltered sunlight for 7-8 hours a day. Ideally, the spot should provide fertile soil — though Dorthe’s videos offer advice on boosting soil fertility — and it needs good drainage. If the only sunny spot available to you happens to lie in a low spot where the soil remains persistently wet, then Dorthe recommends creating a raised bed, a patch enclosed by a 12-inch high wooden frame and filled with compost amended topsoil. Another consideration for locating the garden is that it needs to be within easy hose-dragging range of a water faucet. Irrigating a vegetable garden, especially one planted in a fast-draining raised bed, with a watering can is unlikely to provide sufficient moisture for the plants to flourish.
For the rest of Dorthe’s advice on vegetable gardening basics, I recommend you go to her online videos at BerkshireBotanical.org/virtual-learning or on their YouTube channel. There, novices will find all the information they need to go from seed to harvest and start their own farm-to-table endeavor.
Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Nature into Art and The Gardens of Wave Hill (Timber Press, 2019). Be-a-Better Gardener is syndicated in 19 print and online publications, reaching 250,000 readers. Tom’s companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener, streams on WESUFM.org, Pacifica Radio and NPR and is available at his website, https://www.thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast.