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WVU Extension gardening program sees bumper crop of participants after coronavirus shutdown

Jennifer Boone Testerman and her daughters signed up for Grow This to have something to do during the coronavirus lockdown.(Photo by Jennifer Boone Testerman)

NOTE: This article is from 2020. Click here to sign up for the 2021 Grow This program.

Hand washing has become a worldwide obsession as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. But Kelly Reed of Davisville decided this was the perfect time to get her hands dirty.

Stuck at home and scrolling through Facebook one recent day, she saw a friend’s post about the Grow This: West Virginia Garden Challenge.

The program, run by the WVU Extension Service’s Family Nutrition Program (FNP), will send free seeds to anyone in West Virginia who fills out a short survey. This year’s Grow This crops will be microgreens, peas, tomatoes and butternut squash.

As a kid, Reed spent lots of time helping her dad plant, water and harvest their home-grown vegetables. She left vegetable gardening behind when she grew up, preferring instead to fill her pots with flowers. But Grow This seemed like a good opportunity to get back to her roots.

“It was something I could do with my daughter,” she said. “That's my main goal right now, especially with the time off—spend some time outside, as a family.

“We're going to start gardening instead of worrying about everything.”

Reed’s family isn’t the only one turning to gardening as a way to deal with the global pandemic.

Grow This, which launched in 2018, usually has a few hundred participants each year. This year, more than 5,000 West Virginians have signed up—many of them first-time gardeners.

“The idea behind Grow This is, if you’re new to gardening, just try one thing and see how you do. It’s a comfortable place for people to start,” said Kristin McCartney, FNP specialist and assistant professor.

Susan Eckard of Buckhannon joined Grow This in 2018 after seeing a post on Facebook.

“At the time I was working on getting my disability. I had no money and was trying to get seeds together to grow. It was a great opportunity for me to get a few vegetables at home,” Eckard said.

She grew that first year’s crop in a bed at Buckhannon’s community garden. But she now has two raised beds at her home. "I have to use a raised bed because, being disabled, I can't do it on the ground,” she said.

Eckard hopes to add two more raised beds to her garden this year. “It gets me outside, instead of sitting inside all day long. It gives me something to look forward to,” she said.

Grow This participant Christine Caterino also joined in 2018. She moved to West Virginia from Florida four years ago and is still learning what kinds of plants grow best in this climate.

She has found the Grow This Facebook page—which boasts more than 3,500 followers—to be a great resource for ideas and advice. For instance, one recent post suggested growing microgreens in plastic strawberry containers.

"I thought, ‘Well that's great!’” Caterino said. “I've got some of those and I can try it that way instead of going all professional.”

The Facebook page is also where FNP staff will keep participants informed about special contests and challenges that will take place throughout the growing season.

“Even though we’re spread out, it creates a community,” McCartney said.

Grow This participants also can receive support from FNP health educators and WVU Extension agents.

“There are times when, as a society, we need to pull together and do something good. This is one of those times,” McCartney said. “And it just happens to be the right time of year to garden, too.”

Follow the Grow This Facebook page for updates.