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Tired of being stuck inside? Here are tips for starting a garden

Gardening is an outdoor activity you can do from home that can be relaxing and fruitful.

If you are stuck at home because of the coronavirus and starting to climb the walls, now can be a good time to catch up on yard work or start gardening. Luckily, March is a great time of year for that and can yield some much-need stress relief, along with crops.

We talked with some experts, who are also working from home right now, and they agreed that gardening is something you can do without having contact with anyone. If you use leaves from your yard, seeds from fruits and vegetables you eat or split pre-existing flowering plants, you don’t have to go to the store for anything. This is also a great activity in which to involve the kids.

It all starts with good soil. Most people look at all those fallen oak leaves as a nuisance. They rake them up and throw them away. Instead, you can turn them into compost. Layer the leaves in compost bins. Or, slowly till and turn them directly into the dirt. This makes a good home for earthworms, which improves the soil.

“You can compost leaves or use them as mulch in the case of pine and oak leaves. Composts and mulches break down into nutrients for plants in the soil and help hold water in the root zone,” said Pinellas County extension agent Theresa Marie Badurek, who specializes in horticulture.

Traditional compost is derived from a combination of soil, yard waste and food scraps.

Planting is next. Choose from hearty above-ground crops, annual flowers and vegetables we grow for their leaves or their fruits, including lettuce, cabbage, beans and tomatoes.

“Match your plant to sun, water and soil conditions and you are off to a great start,” Badurek said. “Think about the full mature size of the plant and be realistic about where you plant it. You don’t want to plant too closely to walls, driveways, or plant things too close together.”

Proper irrigation helps your flowers and crops survive. Experts recommend watering in the early morning instead of the evening. As temperatures climb during the day, water evaporates. If you irrigate at night, the water pools, which could give plants diseases.

During the spring and summer, most counties in Florida are usually under water restrictions, which means your plants could begin to look less than pristine. To hold in some of the moisture, install a drip irrigation system under a layer of mulch. A drip irrigation system can be as simple as a hose with holes punched in it every few inches.

Proper watering techniques are paramount to plant survival.

“Drip irrigation is best because it delivers water directly to the root zone of the plant where it is needed and less water is wasted to wind, runoff and evaporation,” Badurek said.

And finally, fertilization. Be kind to those worms we mentioned earlier. They take care of everything.

Worms from composting provide nutrients for the soil.

“Earthworms help break down leaves and other garden debris into nutrients for your plants,” she said. “Essentially, they help feed the roots of your plants by enriching the soil.”

Get outside

If you don’t want to clutter your own yard, but still want to work in a garden, the Sweetwater Organic Community Farm in Tampa, 6942 W Comanche Ave., Tampa, has volunteer opportunities. (813) 887-4066.

Here are some projects around your yard to consider:

  • Now is the time to divide crowded perennial plants such as cannas, gerberas, day lilies and stokesia. Division involves cutting large clumps into smaller sections, making sure each smaller clump has an adequate supply of stems, leaves, roots and buds to survive transplanting. Transplant separated clumps at the same depth they were growing originally. Don’t divide plants when they are flowering.
  • Cut branches just above where last year’s growth ends.
  • Rake any fallen blooms and leaves and put down a fresh layer of mulch to help avoid petal blight next year.
  • Spray with a light horticultural oil to control scale insects. You’ll need to spray two or three times, seven to 10 days apart.
  • Hibiscus should be pruned in March. They can be pruned throughout the summer to keep from becoming leggy, however, you’ll sacrifice a certain amount of blooms whenever you prune.
  • Purchase azalea plants while they are still blooming. They will always perform better if planted in the shade. The planting hole should be 12 inches wider than the root mass.
  • Now is the time of year to plant root crops such as carrots, radishes and potatoes, as well as biennials and perennials.
  • Take cuttings from plants you wish to propagate. This is also a time for potting rooted cuttings.