Victory gardens are a growing trend during the coronavirus crisis
As spring heats up, quarantined Americans are turning back to the land to grow their own food, even if that land is just a few half wine barrels on an apartment balcony.
With most people confined to their homes and yards, the victory gardens popular during World War I and II are making a comeback overnight, offering a productive activity for otherwise idle hands and the possibility of a secure food source in uncertain times.
Nurseries and garden centers, considered essential businesses because of their link to the food supply, are allowed to remain open. And they're doing a brisk business selling seed and vegetable starts.
Fred King, owner of King's Nursery in Santa Rosa, said 70% of the people coming in now are shopping for plants they can grow and eat.
“Everybody is gravitating toward that stuff first,” he said. “It's why they made the trip over.”
King said demand is so high he's having to make extra effort to source the kinds of varieties and organically grown starts people are demanding.
The trend is sweeping the nation, with many calling this surging interest in backyard growing the “New Victory Garden,” a 20th century movement updated for the millennium.
The seed was planted during World War I to help feed a starving Europe, then suffering from food shortages when many farmers were called to service and their farms became battlegrounds.
Americans, also facing shortages of canned goods, were exhorted to help fill the need by growing their own food, allowing more commercially grown crops to be sent to soldiers and the hungry overseas. There even was a National War Garden Commission established in 1917 to drum up a citizens brigade of backyard growers armed with shovels and trowels and a U.S. School Garden Army called up by the federal Bureau of Education.
The practical idea of providing for oneself stuck around in the years after the armistice and through The Great Depression. But it really became one of the defining war efforts on the homefront during World War II. An estimated 20 million small gardens produced 40% of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. as war raged in the South Pacific, Europe and North Africa.
Sue Lovelace, a Sonoma County Master Gardener who specializes in growing home crops, said the common thread between the wartime victory gardens and those going in now during the global coronavirus pandemic is a desire to ensure a stable, clean and safe food source in the face of potential shortages and health concerns.
“When you grow it yourself,” she said, “you know how old it is and how fresh it is.”
You also know where it came from, how it was grown and that only you or an immediate family member handled it on the way from the garden to the kitchen.
Victory garden packs
“People are growing like crazy now. Everyone is buying up chickens and planting gardens. They're scared. The same thing happened in 2008,” said Aaron Keefer, head of cultivation and production at Sonoma Hills Farm west of Petaluma.
Some also are concerned that every trip to the market poses a risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
The Sonoma Ecology Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary by giving away 300 victory garden starter packs, filled with a mix of summer squash, cucumbers, melons, sunflowers, peas and bean starts, along with organic carrot and spinach seed packets and simple growing tips. The starts are being grown by Bee-Well Farms in Glen Ellen. Packs will be distributed for free from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on April 25 on a first-come, first-served basis at the horseshoe in front of Sonoma City Hall. The line will be a drive-thru. Delivery is available for anyone in Sonoma Valley who is at higher risk and needs to stay home. For more information and to request delivery, visit sonomaecologycenter.org.
“Given that this crisis has massive implications for the world and for our community, Sonoma Ecology Center hopes to bring back the victory garden tradition to Sonoma Valley as a way to promote local sustainability and resilience,” executive director Richard Dale said. The center hopes to keep the movement alive once the pandemic has passed.
The movement has spread like squash vines through the Sonoma Valley already. A new Sonoma Victory Garden Club Facebook page that went up three weeks ago has drawn more than 200 members who trade growing tips and advice.
Kathy Holt-Ries is among the newbies who leaped headfirst into the movement. She lives in a mobile home park in Sonoma and has never planted a food garden before. But as soon as the shelter-in-place order came down in Sonoma County, she bought some raised beds and other basic equipment at Friedmans' Home Improvement, had soil and compost delivered and got to work.