Garden writer Sally Cunningham’s books include GREAT GARDEN COMPANIONS and BUFFALO-STYLE GARDENS.

The numbers aren’t tallied but the reports are pouring in from garden centers, landscape pros, farmers markets, and consultants: new gardeners have popped up like dandelions this season. Even as I bought corn from Dean Weber (Weber’s Garden Center, Davis Road, West Falls), I heard about it: “The new gardeners keep coming! They’re asking me how to grow things and solve their problems! It’s just one of the ways this season was different.”

New gardeners are as diverse in motive and style as experienced gardeners, but they have much in common. Four new gardeners offered stories for this article; their tales represent hundreds more. They’re the gardeners of today and of the future; growers and garden industry folks would do well to listen to their voices.

Why did you get into gardening this year in particular? Was COVID-19 a factor, or were there other reasons?

Stephanie Zarbo (Buffalo): “I needed to channel anxious energy into something. My time spent researching and seed starting was a really important distraction to all of that madness going on—something I always wanted to do, but never felt I had time for.” Zarbo and her husband run an adventure travel company (We Must Dash LLC), which COVID put on hold.

Erika Hedberg (Buffalo): “It’s been a dream of mind to learn to garden. I’ve ordered the Baker Creek catalog for years to admire, but my efforts in the past were abysmal failures. The pandemic afforded me time to learn. While at home with my three little ones, I began watching YouTube vlogs (Roots and Refuge Farm, Robbie and Garden Gardening Easy, Epic Gardening).” Hedberg was also inspired by the garden at her children’s school (Bennett Park Montessori School).

Emily Morosi-Catan (Buffalo): “We moved into our new home a year ago, and felt completely overwhelmed by the existing gardens.” (The prior owner was a passionate gardener.) Morosi-Catan works from home, but found more time as her work slowed down. “Four-year-old twins running around while you’re on a Zoom call is not easy,” says Morosi-Catan, who found that the garden provided good solo time. “It helps me clear my head and relieves stress, which there is no lack of this year.”

Polina Broitman (Lancaster): “Two years ago, I immigrated to the US from Israel, where I had a successful architecture and design practice. [There, my life] as a businesswoman and young mother did not leave much space or time for gardening.” Once here, Broitman did not find work immediately. During the first fairly rough year, she and her children worked on adapting to the climate and the new language, experiencing much homesickness. In year two, they moved to their Lancaster home, and she began to focus on gardening and plants—indoors and out. The pandemic changed her plans to find certain seeds and fruit trees, but a friend gave her tomato seeds, which changed the whole gardening season for her. It became all about tomatoes.

How did you start? What kind of garden? What size?

Zarbo: “I started seeds indoors, which my dad always did. I bought the shelves, bought grow lights, and created a plant room in my upstairs bedroom. It became my little oasis.” With a small back yard, Zarbo built raised beds that she planted in a square-foot gardening style, and used some containers. She also restored an existing bed to plant a butterfly garden. (Zarbo raises and releases monarchs.)

Crops: cucumbers, potatoes, spaghetti squash, buttercrunch lettuce, carrots, giant sunflowers, lots of marigolds (including a variety from Thailand), and native plants for the butterflies

Hedberg: “I started seeds in late March and then purchased starts from Pelion Garden and Clinton/Bailey. We planted in five used Rubbermaid totes (eighteen gallons and larger), and we planted potatoes in tires.” With great effort, Hedberg resuscitated two old four-by-eight-foot raised beds, amending the soil with compost and peat, and then built a three-bay compost bin. She also rescued an old buffet from the curb, removed the top, painted it red, and planted it with perennials from Mischler’s sale. Crops: Corn, beans, tomatoes, zucchini, okra, peppers, garlic chives, fennel, and other herbs

Morosi-Catan: “We started bed by bed, with what was there. The garden lines three sides of a large yard. We purchased a used raised bed online, and planted vegetables from a seed kit. That was a fail.” Morosi-Catan’s first-year story was less about food growing than recouping her ornamental beds: she moved flowers and shrubs around, and “removed about a contractor bag full of gooseneck loosestrife, which is, so far, the plant I despise the most!” With the help of two men and a Jeep, she had fifty-year-old yews removed. “A nice woman [who had grown up in the house] stopped by and congratulated me on removing them,” says Morosi-Catan, who, with her husband, planted shrubs, flowers, and two tri-colored willows.

Broitman: “Tomatoes are my love, in all shapes and colors; our daily menu must have tomatoes. I planted the seeds, moved the seedlings into plastic containers from yogurt and sour cream, and even metal cans.” Broitman then grew the plants in front of a patio glass door, waiting for risk of frost to end. She sewed sixty-five individual growing bags out of a premium landscape fabric. “You had to see me running back and forth with the heavy bags of tomatoes whenever there was notice of a coming storm. [I took] fifty-four tomato bushes into the living room to save them from hail. But I learned: I am a tomato mommy now.”

Crops: Tomatoes, cilantro and other herbs, broccoli, kale, radishes, beets, and black currants

What passions, values, or personal goals did you bring to this project?

Zarbo: “My goal was to use this year to see what I was capable of growing. I wanted to try everything and not be too hard on myself if things didn’t work out. With hard work and research, I have learned so much. There are not many things in life that have me opening up a book or digging through articles and actually becoming absorbed in the content anymore. It was a joy.”

Hedberg: “I’m not sure where it comes from, but I have a deep and persistent interest in growing food. Perhaps it stems, at least in part, from the uncertainty of today and my goal of self-reliance for both myself and my children as they grow and learn to navigate this ever-changing world. I’m interested in permaculture, hügelkultur, and food production mostly, but also hope to build a lush yard with loads of perennial flowers and pollinators buzzing about. I’ve also been periodically burning branches to produce biochar, which I add to my compost. I learned about all these techniques and the reasoning for them from YouTube videos.”

Morosi-Catan: “I’ve always enjoyed interior design and apply some of that aesthetic outdoors, including blends of colors and a certain symmetry to the way I’ve organized my plants. My sons and I love to watch the birds at the feeder.” Morosi-Catan also gardens to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

“The biggest surprise has been how much I have enjoyed learning something new—researching the plants, learning their names, and how to care for them.”

Broitman: “Values that matter to me: First of all, sustainability. We must live a more conscious and sustainable life, with ecological awareness. I don’t think that having a big lawn is a valuable thing; on the contrary, it’s very bad for our ecology. I would rather have locally produced fruits and vegetables for our family needs. I dream of having extras for fermentation, pickling, and canning for off-season consumption. It’s really painful to see how food waste is adding to global warming, which contributes to climate disasters around the world: deserts are growing, people don’t have access to fresh drinking water, can’t water their fields. I know that’s probably a cultural thing in the States to have a beautiful green lawn, but I am happy to see more people convert their front and backyards to valuable gardens instead.” 

How did it work out and what will you do differently next year?

Zarbo: “Overall, I’d say it was a success, even though I envisioned slightly different outcomes.” Zarbo’s biggest success was herbs, and now she is “swimming in delicious dill, rosemary, and basils.”

Next year: Zarbo and her husband will move the vegetable garden and many perennials to the sunniest part of the yard, which is also nearest the hose. She will work on pest prevention techniques and plans to learn more about fertilization.

Hedberg: “My garden was mostly successful.” She struggled with squash vine borers and potato beetles. Next year: Hedberg will plant more perennials in the landscape beds. She will build more raised beds and two four-by-eight-foot hügelkultur beds for veggies, and she will plant some fruit trees.

Morosi-Catan: “I have started a nice foundation, learning about the unique nature of each plant, how certain plants overtake others and stunt their growth. It’s almost like managing personalities in a school or workplace.” The biggest disappointment was trying to grow grass in the old landscape beds out front.

Next year: Morosi-Catan wants a nice tree as a focal point in the front yard. She looks forward to “more fun planning and less pulling weeds.”

Broitman: It was a time of experimenting and learning. Broitman struggled with how to protect plants from wildlife, and which would grow in the shady areas closest to the house. She grew tomatoes in a too-shady spot, but many are doing well. She learned about cabbage worms.

Next year: “I have many plans for expanding my garden; I’m thinking seriously about designing a nice greenhouse with room for seedlings and tropical trees. In the garden, I want to add varieties of grapes, blueberries, fruit trees, asparagus, onion, potatoes, zucchinis, and more.” There will definitely be many tomatoes.

Children are a focus

These interviewees and many others commented on the benefits of engaging children in gardening, especially when kids are out of school or away from organized activities. Broitman wrote: “[The kids] are so thrilled by it that they dream now to have a big farm. The oldest son [ten] got so engaged that he has now a few plants in his own bedroom and he is dreaming to enlarge his collection. The youngest son is so experimental; he wants to plant every seed from his food. That is how we ended up with millions of pepper and cantaloupe seedlings. That’s how he learned that there are female and male flowers on cantaloupe. He even asked me if we can grow salmon in our Jacuzzi, which was hilarious. But, it got me thinking about aquaponics!”

These four women are strong individuals with original stories, motives, and results. What they have in common: satisfaction in the gardening process—the learning, the doing, and the results. All experienced a degree of relief and relaxation as they escaped pressures and worries about COVID-19 or life in general. It will be so interesting to see their gardens next year.

Garden writer Sally Cunningham’s books include Great Garden Companions and Buffalo-Style Gardens

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