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Port Huron looks to expand, meet demand in ‘sprouts’ program

In this Friday, May 1, 2020, photo, Luke Marion, owner of MIGardener, works in his garden at home in Marysville, Mich. After the initial success of the Sprouts program, talks have been had about expanding it to the rest of the county. MIGardener, which operates online and has a store in downtown Port Huron, supplied seeds for the city’s Port Huron Sprouts program at the end of April. (Brian Wells/The Times Herald via AP)

By JACKIE SMITH
The Times Herald
AP Member Exchang

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PORT HURON — It’s planting season, but for the hundreds taking the city of Port Huron up on its free sprouts program to grow veggies at home, it may be their first time figuring out how to navigate it.
Luke Marion, whose business MIGardener supplied the 1,000 family seed packets, says it’s easier than most people think to get started, whether they’re growing in their own backyard or in planters indoors.
“You can still do a lot in containers, too. Basically, the smallest container going to be about a half-gallon in size,” he told The Times Herald while preparing to plant a few small vegetable sprouts into his family’s extensive backyard garden in Marysville. “For something like lettuce, something that has a small root system, you can plant in a half-gallon container. If you’re growing something big, like tomatoes, a pepper, things like that, you’re going to need probably need closer to a five-gallon container. Three to five gallons is about right for that.”
MIGardener, which operates online and has a store in downtown Port Huron, supplied seeds for the city’s Port Huron Sprouts program at the end of April.
Funded with federal Community Development Block Grant dollars, the program included seeds for beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, green beans, kale, lettuce, and radishes.
As of last week, officials said the interest in the program had exceeded supply so far, and that they were working on ways to expand the program to meet continued demand.
City Manager James Freed said Port Huron received more than 1,000 written requests via email and 500 packets were picked up in person. “Of that thousand requests, 30%” of those interested don’t live in the city, he said, posing another challenge, as the program was intended for just city residents.
“We want to see if there’s a funding source to get those requests fulfilled,” he said. “We also don’t want people who are outside the city to go without.”
Additionally, Freed said those who emailed in requests and live in the city haven’t received the seeds yet, they were expected to be mailed this week.
Freed said it was too soon, however, to know who else could partner with the program to help meet continued demand in the city and elsewhere in St. Clair County after fulfilling initial orders.
Marion’s home also has an indoor operation for a variety of the food they grow.
But for people taking advantage of the sprouts program, he said working with seeds could be just as beneficial, despite the different seasons for some veggies.
“A lot of these seeds can actually be started directly in the soil outside,” Marion said. “Then, they’re going to germinate when the weather’s right. Like, right now, these seeds here literally sprouted probably yesterday.”
He was motioning to a few beet sprouts. Something like peppers and tomatoes, he said, would take longer to pop up.
Their garden outside included a few rows of raised beds filled in part with compost. It was something Marion recommended, adding “anyone can get some bagged soil” or make their own homemade compost from natural yard refuse over time.
“There’s also nothing wrong with using good old dirt right in your yard,” he said, removing a small square chipping green from his lawn beside the backyard garden. Beneath it, the grass was gone.
“‘If you take right now a tarp and cover off the space you want to plant and put stones on it to weight it down, what’s going to happen over time is it’s going to solarize. It’s called solarizing. It’s going to kill off the grass,” Marion said. “Literally, you don’t have to till this. Then, what’s great is the worms come up and they actually eat the grass. You don’t even need specific compost necessarily.”
Later, Marion took a few minutes to plant a few sprouts for cabbage, beans and a tomato plant in separate beds. They were all among the seeds included in the sprouts program’s seed packets.
Each, Marion said, required different distances between plantings, whether they were sprouts or seeds.
Something like cabbage, in addition to broccoli and other greens, required larger distance of the three, he said, because “it doubles in size pretty much within the first couple weeks, so you need to make sure you space them out about 10 to 12 inches between each plant.”
Something like bush beans, Marion said, could be spaced out eight to 10 inches.
He had a variety of other advise for how to help specific plants to succeed, how to fertilize or how often to water – watering needs depends on how dry the soil is, he added – but referred to online resources. Each seed packet in the sprouts kit came with a link for more help on that vegetable.
MIGardener additionally has a deep online catalog on their YouTube channel with advice on home gardening.
Sprouts was originally a program that city officials said would be good for families to work on together while stuck at home amid the state’s coronavirus lockdown.