By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Apr 22, 2020 at 9:01 AM

The coronavirus pandemic has changed our everyday life, but it doesn't need to change who we are. So, in addition to our ongoing coverage of the coronavirus, OnMilwaukee will continue to report on cool, fun, inspiring and strange stories from our city and beyond. Stay safe, stay healthy, stay informed and stay joyful. We're all in this together. #InThisTogetherMKE

Anyone who has gardened already knows the physical and emotional benefits of getting a little dirty and planting something beautiful.

Local gardening expert Melinda Myers says research now proves what gardeners have long understood. "Spending time in the garden and nature improves our mood, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress and helps us focus," she says.

"Scientists made a positive connection between soil microbes and human health. They found Mycobacterium vaccae in the soil worked as an antidepressant, increased cognitive ability, lowered stress and improved concentration."

Which means now is a great time to get planting, because during quarantine, many of us could use the exercise for our bodies and minds.

Says Myers, "The lack of social contact is hard on so many - tending plants is another way to channel your nurturing spirit, plus you will grow beautiful flowers and tasty nutritious veggies."

And, while it’s not possible to stroll the aisles of most of your local greenhouses (although in some of them you can), many shops are doing curbside pickup. Besides the big box stores, statewide chains like Stein’s and many others are still open for business.

But first, here are some spring gardening tips from Myers, both for the beginning and seasoned planter. Then, check out out list below for local greenhouses still open and ready to help.

OnMilwaukee: How can we pick plants and flowers without seeing them first? When I garden, I wander around the store and browse the aisles until inspiration strikes me.

Melinda Myers: Look at the challenges of shopping differently this spring as an opportunity to try some new gardening techniques. I am starting more plants from seeds this year since I have more time at home and I need to extend my budget. I am jump starting the season more than usual with row covers and cloches so I can plant earlier for an earlier harvest. I know many people are concerned about food safety and availability.

I have the same style, design as I go, and usually buy more plants I want rather than what I really need. So I have been working much harder on planning my gardens and making then revising my shopping list. If possible ask the garden center staff to share their thoughts for new and cool plants they think you would like. As you may know I work with Eberts Greenhouse Village in Ixonia. When I shop in person I always wander through the greenhouses but I also depend on their staff to point out any new varieties I need to try.

Those that like to experiment may say something like, "Include x number of plants with x color flowers suited to the sun, shade or whatever the growing conditions." They might find something that will become their new favorite. This is where having a relationship with a local garden center helps. You know the quality they provide (so you know anything they put in your curbside pick up order will be great), and their staff know you.

Be patient, as everyone is anxious to get started, and many garden centers will be overrun with calls and email orders. This is a new way for most to do business and we want to support them and their staff while keeping everyone safe

Would you suggest some sort of starter pack, so new gardeners can get everything they need in one trip?

Definitely. If you want to grow your own food, consider the vegetables your family likes to eat or cook with.

Tomatoes: a small cherry type for snacking and salads. I like the sweet Sun Sugar, Bumblebee and All America Selections Firefly. A paste tomato like Roma, Amish Paste or San Marzano - there is also a compact Roma for those with small spaces. Slicing tomatoes for those BLTs and relish plates - beefsteak, celebrity, Mountain Merit, Better Boy and more.

Sweet Bell Pepper for stuffing, relish trays and salads
Hot peppers: if you like, pick based on the level of heat
Shishito peppers are at the top of my list - tasty and easy to roast and make great appetizers - you have probably enjoyed them at a favorite restaurant

What are some herbs you like to use?

Basil: needs warm soil and air temperatures so don’t be overanxious to plant - wait until late May or early June unless protected
Sage: a perennial when grown in the ground
Oregano: a perennial that can be as aggressive as mint - so consider growing in a pot or area where it can be contained
Mint for desserts and beverages: again grow in a pot or areas where it can be contained

How about flowers?

Beacon Impatiens: new variety resistant to Downy mildew comes in various colors
Sun loving or shade loving coleus
Dragon wing, Whopper and Big Red: large begonias that grow well in sun or shade in the ground or a container
Calibrachoas, Minibells: low maintenance plants - look like mini petunias that grow best in pots or well-drained areas

What kind of plants and flowers should we be planting right now, since now seems like the time to get out and do this instead of waiting until summer?

Soil and air temperature influence when we should plant certain flowers and vegetables. We need to remember it is Wisconsin and springs can be brutal.

Cool season flowers (those that tolerate cooler soil and air temperatures) include pansies, snapdragons, stocks and alyssum. Cool season vegetables include planting seeds of peas, lettuce, spinach, radishes, beets and carrots. Plants of broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage can be planted end of April - early May.

Beans and corn are next to go in the garden - mid to late May. Warm season flowers and vegetables do not tolerate frost and thrive in warm soil and air - these are usually planted in late May or early June.

Warm season veggies include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, cucumber, squash. Warm season flowers are zinnias, marigolds, begonias, petunias and more.

You can use floating row covers that allow air, light and water through but trap the heat around the plants, cloches and cold frames to warm the soil and air so you can plant earlier.

How about people who have apartments / rooftop gardens instead of people with backyards?

Lots of opportunities to garden in containers. My philosophy: anything can be grown in a pot if the container is big enough to support the plant and you will give it the care it needs.

Plus, breeders have introduced lots of compact plants like Bush or patio type tomatoes. All America Selections has great information on tested varieties suitable for containers as well as the garden bed.

Compact fruit plants are also available: Raspberry shortcake (compact and thornless) and Baby Cakes Blackberry (compact and thornless) that are suited to small spaces and container gardens.

Select a pot with drainage holes, a quality potting mix and for those that know me, I recommend Milorganite - fertilize at planting and mid season if needed - perfect for busy and low maintenance gardeners.

Self watering pots with reservoirs to release water over a longer period of time help reduce watering frequency.

A new sustainable product, Wild Valley Wool Pellets, can be added to the soil to help extend the time between watering and increase pore space for drainage.

For those gardening indoors, there are lots of great options. Greens and many herbs will thrive in a sunny window. LED plant lights are now more affordable and extend the ability to grow more plants like tomatoes indoors.

Any other tips?

Gardening should be fun. As we struggle with all the other challenges related of Covid 19, gardening can provide relief, and the results are food we can eat and flowers we can enjoy.

Here are a few local gardening stores that are open for pickup. We recommend you call first, since many of these greenhouses have new hours during the "Safer At Home" order:

Bayside Garden Center
400 E. Brown Deer Road, Bayside
(414) 352-6159

Bluemel's Garden & Landscape Center
4930 W. Loomis Rd., Greenfield
(414) 282-4220

Kellner Greenhouse
3258 N. Humboldt Blvd.
(414) 264-6605

Johnson's Gardens
8504 WI-60 Trunk, Cedarburg
(262) 377-2500

Minor’s Garden Center
7777 N. 76th St.
(414) 354-4830

Plant Land
6204 S. Howell Ave.
(414) 768-0126

Schuler Gardens
5034 W. Wells St.

Shady Acres Perennial Nursery
5725 S. Martin Road, New Berlin
(262) 679-1610

Shady Lane Greenhouse
W172 N7388 Shady Lane, Menomonee Falls
(262) 251-1660

Weber's Greenhouse
4215 N. Green Bay Ave.
(414) 312-7883

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.