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Social distancing won’t keep you from the garden

Peter Swanson, a retired Quincy High School biology teacher in his greenhouse, a small structure he built at his home in Hingham.
Peter Swanson, a retired Quincy High School biology teacher in his greenhouse, a small structure he built at his home in Hingham.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/David L Ryan, Globe Staff

Home all day, cut off from school and friends, young people have time on their hands. “It’s three times harder for them than for us to be shut up in the house,” said Peter Swanson, the former science department chairman at Quincy High School and an active gardener.

His advice on what young people can do when they have to keep 6 feet away from their friends and neighbors?

“Try some projects that give you an insight into the environment,” the Hingham resident said, “and do something that’s good for the earth.”

The month of March is too early for full-bore gardening, but there's still a lot to do outdoors. If your household already has a garden plot or is planning to have one this year, the soil can be loosened and fertilized now.

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New plants can be started from seed indoors on a window sill, under a grow-light, or in a greenhouse. Some retailers now carry small, inexpensive greenhouses with space for four shelves of seed flats.

If you haven’t grown anything before outdoors — and especially if you don’t have much garden space — Swanson urges acquiring the book “Square Foot Gardening,” by Mel Bartholomew. The book shows how to construct 1-foot-by-1-foot raised garden beds along a driveway, or in a patio corner, or anywhere that puts growing plants under the sun.

The square-foot garden approach is useful for what Swanson calls "urban horticulture."

"I believe in urban horticulture," he said. "Some kids are fascinated by it, and excited. It gives them things to do."

And one thing almost anyone can do outdoors is composting, a means of turning kitchen waste plus yard waste like fallen leaves into high-value fertilizer, and a practice Swanson advocates.

"Environmentally," he said, "the most useful thing we can do now is composting."

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To get started, erect a 2-foot-high fence around a small area “and start filling it with leaves,” he said. Then add some organic kitchen waste, such as skins, cores, seeds, peels, and vegetable and fruit leftovers.

Be careful not to add meat, dairy products, or bread to the compost pile. Turn the compost pile frequently with a pitch fork to aerate. Plant material needs oxygen to break down.

Like the journey of a thousand miles, the most important step is the first one.

“People need to get started,” Swanson said. "It’s not ‘all or nothing.’ "

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com