In the past decade, it seemed that many Americans were enjoying a love affair with farms and the idyllic image of small farms—think farmers markets, farm-to-table restaurants, CSA farms, school garden programs, and farm-stay vacations. Bounty From the Box: The CSA Farm Cookbook and many blog posts on this website have profiled many small family farms, CSA programs, and some of the hard-working farmers growing healthy, honest food from coast to coast.
Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived like a hurricane in March 2020, thoroughly upending the US economy, including every aspect of how Americans produce, sell, and consume food, whether it be restaurants, farms, farmers markets, grocery stores, school meal programs, SNAP, and other food assistance programs. Following two recent posts here about COVID-19–related changes for farmers markets and CSA farmers, this post focuses on the increasing number of people taking up gardening as an emergency response to concerns about food safety, food security, and affordability.
Remembering Victory Gardens
A small number of older Americans may remember World War II Victory Gardens. The grow-your-own movement now making a comeback first began during World War I, when Americans were urged to grow food in whatever spaces they could find—rooftops, fire escapes, empty lots, backyards—to support the needs of a country at war. During World War II, about 20 million gardens were planted on private land and in public spaces, from zoos to urban parks. Just a few remain today—Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston was the topic of a 2018 blog post. World War II victory gardens produced an estimated staggering 40 percent of the country’s food supply.
While food gardening has become more popular in recent years, the coronavirus pandemic’s recent effect is unprecedented, leading to temporary shortages in seeds and garden supplies and huge numbers of people signing up for online gardening classes. After nearly 18,000 people registered for Oregon State University’s introductory online vegetable gardening course by April 1, OSU decided to waive the $45 fee until the end of May.
Now, home gardening is fast becoming a favorite quarantine activity, with at least one study showing that gardening can boost your mood as much as some types of exercise. Many people are discovering that connecting with nature, being outside, nurturing plant life, doing something physical, and having some control over something is helping relieve some of the anxiety, depression, and dread that’s become all too familiar in this lockdown life. And it’s not just adults—children naturally gravitate toward these healthful inclinations with their curiosity and enthusiasm. Growing your own garden also helps connect you with your food and where it comes from—after all, few things afford more satisfaction than eating the food you’ve raised. There’s no perfect time to start like now!
A Soulful Gardener
Growing food is new for some folks, but others began doing it as children with their family or at school. “Gardening is such a part of me that’s it’s like breathing itself,” says Heather Zindash of Gaithersburg, Maryland. Zindash is a Maryland Master Gardener and Master Naturalist with a consulting business she calls The Soulful Gardener.
“I grew up on a five-acre farm in northeast Ohio where we had horses, a cow, pigs, ducks, geese, chickens, cats, and dogs,” says Zindash. “We planted gardens and our neighbors did, too. We even had canning parties. Over the years I’ve also lived in many places with minimal green space—sometimes just a small balcony. People are gravitating to gardening now because it’s so therapeutic. It takes us outside and connects us with nature. It also provides a sense of control in our lives.”
There’s a soulful aspect to relating to your plants, too, Zindash says. “When you’re outside, you’re experiencing so much more than your plants. For example, there are fantastic natural interactions happening, like insects that visit and pollinate our plants, as well as insects and birds that are on the hunt or prey on our plant pests. I know this because I consult with nursery farms and greenhouse businesses in integrated pest management, an approach that enables gardeners to work with natural relationships and use fewer chemicals. Also, when you take time to grow food and bring it inside to cook, you have a much deeper connection with your food—such a different culinary and taste experience than when you buy it at a grocery store.”
Zindash has also added decorative items to her backyard over the years, from spinners for color to an angel statue that came from her late father-in-law’s garden. A two-foot-tall Buddha sits serenely overlooking a small backyard pond. While raising her children, she says she spent many hours, days, and years creating a sacred and nurturing outdoor space for her family and friends to enjoy together.
How to Get Started
For beginning food and herb gardeners, Zindash advises starting by assessing the hours of available sun in the location you have in mind for a garden spot; it should preferably have at least six to eight hours. Its location and dimensions will depend on how much level surface area you have or the type of containers you might choose to use instead.
“You don’t have to spend a lot on raised beds or wood planters. At a time when you may want to stay out of stores, you can grab something you might already have—even a no-longer-used child’s wading pool, a large burlap bag or two from a coffee store, or a straw bale you can turn into a planter. You can find lots of information online for creative container gardening. The most important thing is having good drainage; you don’t want your plants to be standing in a pool of water.”
When beginning gardeners ask Zindash what to plant, she typically asks them what they like to eat. Plant what you want to eat, she tells them. If you’re not too keen on cooking, then share some of your bounty with a neighbor.
One of her favorite planters is a waist-high salad table made from a set of directions available online—this makes it handy for harvesting without having to bend down. She fills it with potting soil and organic matter in the spring and plants it with lettuces, greens, beets, and radishes. It gets full sun. In the fall, she sometimes plants a cover crop to enrich the soil. Until a big tree in her backyard came down a year ago, she had much less sun, so she planted many of her vegetables in pots placed among her perennial plantings.
Although Zindash has a degree in horticulture, she says that everyone can find ways to be successful in gardening. “We’re used to having food look very pristine at grocery stores, but now—during the pandemic—many of us are becoming more connected with our food and realizing through firsthand experience that it doesn’t have to look perfect to be perfectly healthy and delicious.”
Grow Your Own Food at a Community Garden
If you have no space for a garden where you live, consider signing up for a community garden plot in your town or city. In 2018, there were more than 29,000 garden plots in city parks in just the 100 largest US cities. In New York City, GrowNYC has around 600 community gardens, including GreenThumb community gardens; gardens in public housing developments, daycares, and senior centers; and an urban teaching garden on Governors Island. During the pandemic, community gardens that remain open are operating with special health and safety guidelines.
No matter where you want to plant a vegetable garden, start looking for your seeds or plant starts right away as you may encounter local shortages or delays in online orders. Seed companies say they have plenty of seeds, but shipping could be slow. Websites will likely offer up-to-date information. Most states have declared garden centers to be essential services, but they are not required to remain open.
George Ball, chairman of Burpee Seeds, says the company has been flooded with seed orders, as was the case during earlier crises he recalls, including the stock market crash of 1987, the dot-com bubble burst of 2000, and the two oil crises in the 1970s from his childhood. He says he has never seen a spike in demand this large and widespread as the one now during the pandemic.
Nichols Garden Nursery, a two-generation family business in Albany, Oregon, has temporarily closed its retail store, but its catalog business has never had a busier season, says company president Rose Marie Nichols McGee. The company carries more than 600 herb and vegetable seeds and varieties, including specialty seeds from Europe and South America. When a seed shortage arises, as it has with some beans this year, McGee says she can turn to her network of suppliers.
In the current climate of social distancing, having friends and neighbors who are gardeners can be a big help even if it means a conversation over the back fence or email exchanges with a gardening group. You might find a gardening group near you on Facebook or Nextdoor with members who could advise you about where to find what you’re looking for.
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