I grew up in a gardening family. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but this was a family tradition and also simply a way to put food on the table. Early spring was filled with anticipation as my dad worked on his tiller and bought seeds to plant in old cottage cheese containers and waxed cardboard milk cartons with the tops cut off. Every sunny window in the house had a stash of seedlings just waiting for May 12, that magical day in the Mid-Ohio-Valley that is known to all farmers and home gardeners, the day when the last frost has likely passed.
I didn’t fully appreciate the sociological ramifications of my father’s garden as a pre-teen. All I saw was a reason to spend warm summer days cutting down weeds with a hoe or tying and suckering tomatoes or picking and stringing green beans when I would rather be playing baseball or swimming or, ironically enough, lying inside watching one of my favorite TV shows, The Victory Garden on PBS. I was curious about the title, so, this being the dark days before Google, I asked my dad. He told me briefly of how folks grew gardens during World War II in order to support the war effort. I thought that was a neat idea, but I wasn’t interested enough to pursue the research any further. I just knew that we weren’t in a war and I had no intention of ever growing a garden when I grew up.
Fast forward a couple decades to when I finally had a nice house of my own with a nice back yard. Almost without any conscious choice on my part, suddenly I found myself planting a garden. And I still enjoyed watching The Victory Garden on TV. But the title meant more to me. It’s about culture. It’s about heritage. It’s about holding on to the rich tradition that goes back in my family for decades and generations. Before I knew consciously I was doing it, I was participating in a ritual that dates back not to World War II, but, according to Teresa Cartensen in her article on the website ohiohistory.org, “Victory Gardens in the United States”, all the way back to World War I, when a man named Charles Lathrop Pack started an organization to promote home gardening for two reasons: ease the burden on the food supply and allow the folks at home to feel they were making a meaningful contribution to the war effort.
Fast forward to today. We have mega-farms that produce food by the ton and mega-stores where we can get giant, spotless, lush produce and perfect cuts of meat and a thousand kinds of cheese for cheap. But then the unthinkable happens. A virus hits and we’re all told to stay home. People all over the country are getting sick and many are even dying. Businesses, schools, restaurants are shutting down. What if grocery stores shut down? For the first time in decades in our country, average folks are starting to think about where their food comes from.
Which is sprouting, pardon the pun, an interesting phenomenon. The return of the victory garden. Now we aren’t at war with an enemy we can see like they were in World Wars I and II. Today, we’re fighting an enemy we can’t see directly and our entire contribution to the war effort is to stay home and do nothing. For some, that’s something they’ve been hoping to hear all their lives. For others, it’s a frustration. Many want to feel they’re somehow making things better. Easing a burden. Making a meaningful contribution. And one way we can make a difference and maintain social distance at the same time is to grow some of our own food. Even folks like me, who live on tiny lots in downtown Marietta, can do it. Rather than planting flowers behind my garage, this year I’m growing tomatoes, green beans, bell peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow summer squash, herbs, and even bush-type pumpkins. And some of my neighbors are joining in. A gentleman just a few doors down is in process of building a raised-bed garden frame. It doesn’t take a huge tract of land to grow more than enough produce to enjoy all summer and even preserve for fall and winter. And every bit of food you grow is one you won’t have to buy from the store.
Why don’t you consider doing the same? Maybe it’s just a few cherry tomatoes in pots on your back porch. Or do you have a small flower garden you can convert to grow comestibles? Perhaps you even have a yard big enough to convert to a nice, large plot that will produce enough food to eat, can, freeze, and share with grateful neighbors. If this all sounds like too much work or it just feels too mysterious, there are lots of businesses and organizations out there who can help the novice gardener. Your local garden store, for instance, will have all the supplies you need and can give you guidance. Yes, we need to keep close contact to a minimum, but it is possible to maintain social distance and still shop for seeds, plants, and tools and also ask questions.
If you’d like help from an expert from the comfort of your own home, both West Virginia and Ohio have wonderful extension agencies with master gardeners at the ready to answer your gardening questions and give suggestions for everything from what to grow to how to go about it to what to do about pests that threaten to ruin all your hard work. West Virginia’s extension agency has a remarkably thorough website where you’ll find many helpful tools, such as gardening calendars; information about weeds, pests, and fertilizers; and information on every conceivable crop that will grow in our area. Ohio’s extension agency has a slightly different kind of helpful tool in that you can ask a master gardener all the questions you want by filling out the quick, simple form. Between these two terrific sites, you’ll be an expert gardener in short order.
Even if you don’t buy into all the heritage and tradition and helping-with-the-war-effort stuff, gardening is a fun way to get outside and keep yourself busy during the who knows how many weeks we have left before this virus quarantine is lifted. And the added bonus is you get to eat the results of your work. I can tell you there’s nothing quite like tasting that first tomato out of your own garden every year. It tastes like summer on a plate. And we all need some summer to look forward to right now.