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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.

Growing trend

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.

Using grow lights and warming pads, she started her garden from seed in her bedroom: green beans, bush beans, two kinds of cucumbers, peas, zucchini and yellow squash, three kinds of tomatoes, turnips, radishes, spinach and several varieties of lettuce and peppers.

She fit three 12-foot-long raised beds on one side of her home and installed a fourth in front.

Holt-Ries gave herself a quick course in gardening by watching YouTube videos and talking to friends. She also joined the Sonoma Victory Garden Club Facebook group.

“I just connected with a lady. I'm going to pick up some pots for my extra seedlings,” she said.

The current uncertainty in the world motivated her to plant vegetables, she said.

“I wanted to be prepared to feed my family and my neighbors,” Holt-Ries said. “It's also getting away from the environmental hazards that our government allows.”

“It's really exciting watching things grow. I sowed too many seeds. I have extra so I'm giving them away,” she added.

During wartime, victory gardens cropped up everywhere, from windowboxes and pots on fire escapes to vacant lots and commercial landscape strips. Land in parks was put to use for food production, including in Golden Gate Park and the Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston, the last of the World War II victory gardens still in production today.

How to start

Expert say you don't need a lot of space to grow a little food.

“Truly, almost everybody has a little piece of land they can grow on. It can be as small as 4 feet by 8 feet,” said Keefer, who was a chef before he shifted to culinary gardening. He managed the gardens for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry for 10 years. With a larger plot of 500 square feet, you can grow 25% of your family's food six months out of the year, he added.

“The first thing is to start simple,” said Lovelace, who packed a lot of food production into her Cotati yard, a normal-sized lot her grown children teasingly call “the ranch.” “It doesn't even have to be in a big raised bed or even in the ground. It could be fresh soil in a pot.”

Find a spot that gets six to eight hours of sun a day. Start with quality potting soil or compost. This is the foundation of success. If you are planting directly into ground where you haven't planted before, you'll need a shovel to break up the soil, especially if it contains hard adobe clay. Incorporate 5 to 6 inches of high-quality compost into your soil. It is available at nurseries and garden centers at places like Friedman's Home Improvement, which are considered essential services and are allowed to remain open.

You also could enrich your own soil with worm castings, oyster shell flour or blood meal, Keefer said.

Chemical fertilizers act like steroids on plants, he said.

“It's a quick fix. The true flavor in produce comes from all those nutrients that only come from building your soil.”

If you want to start from seed and you're a newcomer to gardening, try seed that is easy to sow directly into the ground, like squash, beans and cucumbers.

You won't need a lot of equipment: a pair of gardening gloves and a trowel (and a shovel if you're working hard soil). Plant your garden near a water source and add a layer of mulch, which will help retain moisture. You can use extra compost, dry and shredded leaves, shredded newspaper or prepared mulch purchased at a nursery.

The important thing to know is that you'll learn by doing, said Keefer, who works a farm that grows a half acre of cannabis and 4 acres of food crops. Expect some failures and be aware that not everything is under your control.

“Every farmer knows it's a bit of a gamble. You never know going into a season how it is going to turn out. There is a lot of hope when you lay down that first seed. You roll the dice and start. At the end of the day, Mother Nature will take hers. You will have lost some stuff to bugs and you will have lost some stuff to rodents. But if you put a little time into it, you'll get more than you give.”

Staff Writer Meg McConahey can be reached at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com

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