Growing Veggies During a Global Pandemic

a young Indian man ties up tomato plants in the garden, surrounded by green

by: Jagadeesh Gummadi


A lot has changed because of the novel coronavirus, but what hasn't changed is that the sun still shines, the rain still falls, and a seed buried in the garden still grows. With all the time this pandemic has given me, I set out to grow the best garden I possibly could. I got home around May 10th and started going through our seed collection and planting some cool weather crops in the backyard like radishes, peas, and lettuce. Then I got to work in our two 30 by 30-foot community garden plots. This was a lot of hard work which required the whole family’s help. Moving heavy loads of compost, putting up a fence, digging furrows, planting and watering newly planted rows. I then had to stay on top of the weeds and replant seeds that did not come up. When everything was small and weak, and the sun was beating down mercilessly, it was hard to believe that anything could possibly grow, but amazingly, everything has come through beautifully.

Midsummer is a wonderful time in the garden because I'm seeing the results of all my work. We've been harvesting dozens of zucchinis and freezing what we can't eat fresh. We've got more leafy greens than any sane person would possibly want to eat. The tomato plants are heavy with plump green tomatoes, and some are just starting to blush pink.

Working in the garden engages my senses to the fullest degree, and I believe this is therapeutic and great for mental health. You can smell the earth right after a heavy rain. Some plants have soft velvety leaves and others are abrasive and sharp like sandpaper. In the morning, the squash patch is alive with the humming of dozens of honeybees and carpenter bees flying from flower to flower covered in bright yellow pollen.

I keep the inputs at the garden to a minimum in order to make the garden as environmentally friendly as possible, which means no chemical fertilizer, no spraying to kill pests or repel deer. Sometimes when gardening in this way, I get disheartened. For example, my cucumber plants were decimated by cucumber beetles. It was discouraging to see them die off, but the winter squash in the next row was thriving and took over the cucumber row. I depend on diversity for my garden to thrive. I know I will have pests and diseases in the garden, but diversity means that there will be predatory insects to feed on the pests and that even if one crop fails, I will have others that won't. It's humbling to learn to work with nature and let the garden come to its own balance rather than fighting every problem with a bottled or bagged product.

Several plantings of peas were razed to the ground by groundhogs and deer, but I built the fence higher, trapped and relocated the groundhogs, and finally I got some peas to grow well. Now I'm eating the freshest, sweetest peas ever. I love how the garden keeps me on my toes and how it constantly creates problems for me to solve.

Naturally, I want to efficiently use the space I have, and the main way I have done this is by building trellises and growing vertically. I collect materials such as bamboo and long straight branches, and then I lash them together with rope. It's primitive, but effective. It is fun to use a bit of creativity to turn a pile of sticks into a nice sturdy trellis, and incredibly rewarding to watch the plants grow up higher and higher, past my head, and smother the trellis with rampant green vines. In the picture above, I'm working in the Gourd Trellis, tying up tomato plants.

In the garden you will find some unique Indian vegetables that we have collected from seed companies, local gardeners, and from my grandparents. Usually we would buy Indian bottle gourds, Okra, and leafy greens from an Indian grocer, but these are shipped a long way and are often tough and tasteless. For instance, we've had a great crop of Roselle, which is used to make a delicious chutney. I gave some to a family friend and they told us how it's very expensive at the grocer and how the stuff we grew cooked quickly and was tender and fresh. The garden has provided me with a very rewarding way to connect with my heritage.

I love this lifestyle of eating what I grow, preserving the bounty, and being outside. I'm planning in April in order to eat tomatoes in July. I get to appreciate even a bleak stormy day because it means the garden is getting a much-needed watering and that I am getting a much-needed break. After reading this, I invite you to think about where your food comes from and dig into how it was grown. I think this pandemic has reminded us that our highly advanced society is not invincible, and neither is the industrial food system that we depend on. Ultimately, what we eat has a huge impact on our health, so we should be informed and push for transparency in the food system. I think the answer lies in local and small-scale.

P.S. If you liked this, please visit my gardening website.